A twelve-year old Jewish girl named Susanna was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, which is a cancer of the lymph nodes. Her father, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, brought her from their family’s home in New York City out to Stanford University in California, where she was to receive a special form of radiation treatment offering a very high chance of success. However, there was a problem: the family was deeply traditional and carefully observed all the Jewish religious rules and prescriptions of the law. For Orthodox Jews, the holiest day of the year is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for sins; on this day, among other things, money is not handled, animal skins and leather are not worn, and cars and even electricity are not used for any purpose. One of Susanna’s radiation treatments—which had to occur on certain dates, in order to be fully effective—was scheduled for Yom Kippur. A few days beforehand her father came to see the doctor and stated it would be necessary to skip that treatment, but the doctor explained this couldn’t be done—and when the rabbi continued to insist, the doctor demanded, “Are you telling me God’s law is more important than your daughter’s treatment? What sort of a God would ask this?” Angry and embarrassed, the father muttered something about referring the matter to the head rabbi in New York City, and stalked from the room.
On the morning of Yom Kippur, Susanna showed up for her treatment right on time, accompanied by both her mother and her father, and the surprised and delighted doctor said to the father, “I’m happy to see you here; what did the head rabbi in New York say?” The father answered, “He told me to have a taxi cab pick us up and bring us here—and that I in particular had to accompany Susanna. When I asked him why, he told me it was so Susanna would see that even the most important laws may be broken in order to save life. He also said Susanna mustn’t feel separated from God by this breaking of the law, as this might interfere with her healing—so here I am” (Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., Kitchen Table Wisdom, pp. 277-278). This is a wonderful story illustrating Judaism at its best, and it serves as an important reminder for us as Christians. Religious rules achieve their true purpose only when they help us act in a loving and caring way.
At first glance the question (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) the Pharisees and scribes had for Jesus—“Why do Your disciples . . . eat a meal with unclean hands?”—might sound very reasonable, and Our Lord’s response of denouncing them as hypocrites may seem unnecessarily harsh. However, Jesus knew the religious authorities weren’t trying to have an honest discussion; they were looking for reasons to oppose Him, marginalize Him, and eventually even destroy Him. The Book of Deuteronomy (4:1-2, 6-8) describes how Moses presented the Law to the people as a great gift from God, the observance of which would be a sign of wisdom and a source of blessing; unfortunately, over the centuries, many of the religious leaders perverted the Law by turning it into a means of personal power and status, using it as a way of controlling people. This perversion of true religion is why Jesus warned His listeners that wicked desires and evil deeds come from within the human heart and thereby make a person unclean in God’s sight. This is a great spiritual danger not only for Jews, but for Christians as well. That’s why St. James (1:17-18, 21b-22, 27) tells us not to delude ourselves by merely hearing God’s word; we must act upon it in humility and truth, especially by showing compassion for those who suffer. This, he says, is how we please God and keep ourselves unstained by the corruption of the world around us.
Pope Francis will be visiting our country in a few weeks, and I’d guess that at some point he’ll speak on the need for the Church to be a living sign of God’s mercy and compassion—for the simple reason that this has been a major theme of his pontificate. He has taken some Church leaders and Vatican bureaucrats to task for falling prey to the temptations of legalism, insufficient concern for those who suffer, and excessive attention to their personal comfort and professional advancement. If the Holy Father were preaching here in our church today on this Gospel passage, I’m sure he would insist the Church enforce its rules in an intelligent and loving way. At the same time, however, he would probably remind us that the rules exist for a good reason, and serve an important purpose, warning us that we mustn’t ignore them or be too quick to excuse ourselves from them. Most likely he would say something that would greatly challenge or make each one of us personally uncomfortable—while humbly admitting that he himself needs to continue struggling against sin and temptation while growing in God’s grace.
The list of evils Jesus mentions in the Gospel 0f Mark is a long one: unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, and folly. Even if we can honestly say we’re innocent of all these sins, there are many others which can easily be present in our lives: laziness, a judgmental spirit, gossip, anger, a refusal to forgive, stinginess, selfishness, unkind words, unfriendliness, a lack of concern for those who suffer, pride, and self-righteousness, to mention just a few. Above all, there are numerous ways, large and small, in which we can fail to love God with all our hearts, and fall short when it comes to loving our neighbors as ourselves. The commandments of God and the laws of the Church are designed to help us recognize and avoid these moral dangers, but they won’t achieve their purpose unless we receive them in a spirit of humility and follow them in a spirit of love.
Jesus did not come to free us from religious rules, but to free us from our sins—and our efforts to follow the rules will either help, or hinder, this process. As the Holy Father would no doubt insist, in every moral situation we must ask ourselves which choice would most glorify God and bring us closer to Him, and then strive to follow all the Church’s teachings and commandments in that spirit. As the Jewish rabbi discovered, showing practical compassion to his daughter was an important way of honoring and proclaiming the goodness and majesty of the Lord. If we in turn try to live our Catholic faith in a humble and loving manner, God will be praised, His commandments will be obeyed, and His blessings upon us will be assured.