Many centuries ago there was a wealthy pagan who attributed his success in life to the different idols, or false gods, he worshipped. In his home he had a shrine to them, with a large, almost life-sized statue of the chief pagan god, and half-a-dozen much smaller statues of other idols. It happened that one of the man’s servants was a devout Christian. This young man often said to his master, “Sir, your so-called gods are made of clay; they cannot move or even breathe—so how can they possibly help those who worship them?” However, the master in his pride paid no attention to what his servant said—so one day, while his master was away, the Christian decided to prove his point in a vivid manner. He took a wooden staff and smashed all the smaller idols to pieces, and then placed the staff in the hand of the large statue. When the master returned and saw what had happened, he was so furious he threatened to kill his servant and cursed him in the name of all his gods. Instead of being fearful, however, the young man asked, “Sir, do you not believe your big god was the one who smashed the little ones? After all, the staff is in his hand.” “Of course not,” the master raged. “He can’t move hand or foot.” “Well, then,” the Christian servant continued, “if you do not believe your god capable of doing what my little human strength can do, how can he be the great and true God Who made heaven and earth?” These words left the master speechless; there was literally no response he could make. He thought about the logic and truth behind his servant’s challenge, and after a few minutes he himself knocked over the big statue of his false idol and humbly fell to his knees to worship the one true God (Spirago, Anecdotes and Examples, p. 404).
We know that we’re not supposed to worship any form of false gods or any man-made idols; this also includes worshipping human traditions. True religion involves not only worshipping and serving the one true God but doing so in the manner that pleases Him.
If God had never revealed Himself, reason and logic would still tell us some important things about Him, but not everything we’d need or want to know. The created world shows us that God is great and powerful, and that His creation is based on order and rules. However, we wouldn’t necessarily conclude that God is loving and merciful, and that He cares about how we treat other people; someone might instead assume that He could be bribed by sacrifices and prayers, and that as long as we went through the motions of worshipping Him and avoided angering Him, He wouldn’t care about our behavior. This, in fact, is the approach taken by many pagan religions—so God revealed Himself to the Jews, His chosen people, precisely to help humanity rise above such false ideas and superstitions. Moses (Dt 4:1-2, 6-8) emphasized to the people that obeying God’s law would give them a unique relationship with Him; they would demonstrate their wisdom and intelligence by worshipping God as He truly wished to be worshipped: in a spirit of wholehearted humility, sincerity, and love.
Jesus reemphasizes this truth in the Gospel of Mark (7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), criticizing the Pharisees and other religious leaders for turning this special relationship with God into merely a set of rules and customs. Laws and regulations serve their purpose only if they help us become more loving and caring; if we allow sin to take root in our hearts, no amount of religious observance will help us. As St. James (1:17-18, 21-22, 27) insists, every good gift is from above, an expression of divine love—and our response to God must be based in humility and gratitude. That’s why James tells us to “be doers of the word and not hearers only,” and to make our experience of religion pure and undefiled by caring for those in need.
This important message sounds very clear and unmistakable—yet all throughout the history of Christianity, many people have watered down the Gospel, turning it into merely a set of rules to follow, or refashioning it into a comfortable and unchallenging routine. It’s very easy for us to become so set in our ways that we’re no longer following God’s way; we may not be worshipping false gods, but if we’re not careful, we can allow our human rules and customs to create a false religion. For instance, it’s proper for us to dress respectfully when we come here to Mass—but doing so doesn’t give us the right to look down on those who fail in this regard. It’s important for us to participate as fully as possible in the Mass—but if, while singing all the hymns, we give into the temptation to judge those who aren’t singing, we lose the grace or merit our participation would have gained us. It’s necessary for persons not in a state of grace to refrain from receiving Holy Communion, either by remaining in the pew or by coming forward for a blessing instead—but if, while we’re coming forward in the communion line, we make a point of looking around to see who isn’t, our hearts are not ready to receive Jesus, and in some ways He may be even more disappointed with us than with those persons in a state of serious sin unable to receive Him in the Eucharist.
Religious rules, customs, and rituals all have a legitimate place and purpose—but giving them too much emphasis, the way many Pharisees did, keeps us from loving God and our neighbor as Jesus commands, and in fact, can almost be a form of idolatry. To avoid this, we must always honestly question our motives, and humbly ask God to help us overcome our blind spots. For instance, is my insistence that everyone keep the rules of the Church truly expressing my love for God, or is it an opportunity to consider myself superior to others? When I perform a good deed, do I try to do so secretly, thereby glorifying God alone, or do I make sure people know about it, so that I’m the one being glorified? Are my efforts to pray and participate at Mass truly and entirely an expression of my love for God, or am I hoping other people will notice and think highly of me?
Pride, selfishness, hypocrisy, legalism, and a judgmental attitude can easily corrupt our worship of God, and misusing our religion’s rituals, customs, and rules can ensnare us in sin and distract us from what really matters. A stubborn insistence on our own way, especially in matters of religion, interferes with the workings of God’s grace. Humility is the only antidote to this form of spiritual poison—for being humble allows us to worship God in sincerity and truth, and serve Him in the way He truly desires.