A young woman preparing to bake a ham sliced off the ends before putting it into the cooking pan. Her little daughter was watching her, and asked, “Mommy, why did you do that?” The woman answered, “Because that’s the way my mother always did it.” When the girl asked, “Why?,” her mother responded, “Well, let’s call Grandma and find out.” Grandma’s answer was, “That’s how my mother always cooked ham.” Now, this was a very fortunate family in that the great-grandmother was still living—and the three generations following her (grandmother, mother, and daughter) were very eager to find out the secret: did slicing off the ends perhaps have something to do with allowing the ham to cook more evenly, or make it juicier or better-tasting? But when they asked the elderly woman, she said, “No; the only reason I sliced off the ends of the ham was so that it would fit into the pan.”
This is an example of a human tradition taking on a “life” of its own, living on long after the original purpose had passed. Such traditions develop very easily, and can soon become more important than the underlying values. This might not be a problem when it happens to human laws and customs, but it’s a serious concern when it leads to a distortion of God’s rules and commandments. Looking at and experiencing religion merely as a set of obligations can be spiritually deadening, robbing us of joy and energy, making life more difficult than it has to be, and even—if we’re not careful—leading us in the wrong direction. God offers us His laws in order to give life—and it’s in this spirit that we must use and obey them.
St. James (1:17-18, 21-22, 27) tells us that “every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father. . . .” This is true of God’s Law, which He presents as a gift to His people. Moses speaks of this Law (Dt 4:1-2, 6-8) as the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land. God had liberated them from slavery in Egypt and guided them through the desert, and Moses promises the people that if they obey these wise and just decrees of the Lord their God, they’ll ensure His continued favor and blessings. Moses also includes a warning not to add to or subtract from God’s Law—but eventually, this is what happened.
Starting in the 5th century before Christ, a group of Jewish legal scholars called scribes began codifying and expanding the Law. They felt that the Law of Moses, which was written in the Jewish Torah, or first five books of the Bible, was too vague. Therefore they began clarifying, expanding, and explaining rules—not in writing, but through oral traditions, which were handed down verbally from one generation to the next. Gradually these oral interpretations of the Law began carrying the same weight or importance as the Law itself. For instance, the written Law required ritual hand-washing by all priests before entering the sanctuary of the Temple; oral traditions eventually extended this requirement to everyone. The underlying idea beneath this and other religious customs was useful and noble enough, but many people became more concerned with following rules than with living according to the values the rules were supposed to protect. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament warned against this danger, and it was also an attitude which Jesus rejected. In the Gospel of Mark (7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), He criticizes and corrects those who think law is more important than love. Carefully observing the rules has its place, but it’s no substitute for genuine love of God and neighbor.
Ancient Jewish scholars claimed that God intentionally gave exactly 613 rules or commandments to Moses. 365 of them were negative—that is, forbidding certain actions—and 248 were positive, requiring certain actions. 365, of course, is the number of days in the year, and 248, according to the scribes, is the number of joints in the human body (Anthony P. Castle, Quips, Quotes, & Anecdotes, p. 227). When the Church compiled its first official Code of Canon Law in 1917, there were 2414 separate canons or rules; the current Code, promulgated in 1983, reduced that to 1752. Religious leaders like to organize, number, and arrange rules and requirements and expectations, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that—as long as we remember that when it comes to our relationship with God, it’s ultimately all about love.
The Lord looks not only at what we do, but also at why we do it. We too must be aware of our motives. For instance, it’s good to come here to church, to say prayers each day, to read the Bible, to give money to charity, to be active in the parish, and so on—but these things do not guarantee holiness. We can do all these things for the wrong reason, such as pride; we can also do all these things without true love (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, Series I, p. 98)—and, needless to say, that approach robs our good deeds of any spiritual value, and prevents us from receiving any spiritual benefit.
St. James warns us of this danger when he tells us we must humbly welcome God’s word and then act upon it. If we merely hear it without responding from the heart, we’re deceiving ourselves. As the apostle suggests, good deeds motivated by true love help make our worship pure and pleasing to God. Today we’re challenged to give honest answers to some tough questions: Why do I follow God’s rules—out of a sense of love, or just obligation, or perhaps even fear? Is my faith real—or just an act? Whom am I serving—God and my neighbor, or myself?
When it comes to cooking a ham, it’s no big deal if we follow a family custom without understanding where it came from—but when it comes to obeying our heavenly Father, our hearts and our minds should be fully engaged. God didn’t create us to be robots, or to do things just because everyone else does them, or to follow rules just because they’re there. His laws are intended to enlighten us and guide us along the way of life and love, and He wants us to be aware of what we’re doing as we follow them. Religious rules and customs are important; they also become successful if they help us grow in God’s love.