There’s a place in the world for tradition: having “Happy Birthday” sung to you once a year; fireworks on the Fourth of July; praying before meals.
But there’s also a time when tradition becomes and end in itself. Evidently, there is a preoccupation among a rather large segment of humanity to continue doing things the way they have “always” been done – regardless of the detriment to themselves or their communities.
The Church needs to wrestle with change. There are some things that cannot change – our belief in Jesus Christ; the reality and mystery of the Trinity; the promise of everlasting life. There are many other items of our practice that can and must change. The problem is telling which category an item falls into.
Some are tempted to “leave the decision with God” and keep everything. But a Church that keeps everything soon finds itself at odds with itself, as old solutions conflict with new realities. Such a Church also abdicates its responsibility to be a force of discernment. It degenerates into miserliness, division and clannishness. It looks lots like the Church we have today.
Worst of all, it does not look like God, which should be its primary preoccupation.
St. Paul makes a statement in the epistle of today that makes Church changers nervous:
“All good giving and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.”
To some, the idea that God is eternal an immutable (unchanging) implies that God cannot change tactics – indeed that God’s specific tactics have been known by God since the beginning. This idea has even given some people the belief that God knows ahead of time which of us will be saved and which damned, leading to a belief in predestination. Theologians seem to want to speak on both sides of this issue, claiming that God knows all (past, present and future) and yet allows free will. This strikes me as game-playing and dishonest. I’ll deal with this another time, but it seems horrible to think that a future-knowing God just plays along with us, though he knows our individual outcomes. The idea just doesn’t sit well with me.
Yet how can God be unchanging, as St. Paul insists, while doing things differently for different people?
This is where the first reading, the responsorial psalm and the Gospel can assist.
In the first reading, Moses entreats the people to obey the commandments without change. “Observe them carefully,” he says, “for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations…” This should be red meat to the no-change faction. Better not change anything, they might think, because God doesn’t like change! But obedience implies wisdom, and wisdom isn’t about doings things without involving one’s intelligence. Hmm.
The responsorial psalm starts to put a twist to God’s unchangingness. The response is this, “One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” Hmm. It’s not about blindly obeying statutes, but about doing justice. Conservatively, perhaps, it’s about obeying the statutes in a way that brings about justice. Hmmm, again. What might that mean about statutes that cannot be obeyed in a way that is just? What about a manner of obeying a statute that itself is unjust?
Finally, the gospel reading gets to the crux of the matter. In the reading, Jesus chastises the Pharisees and scribes who complain that he does not make his disciples wash their hands before eating, as is traditional. Jesus smacks them upside the head with this rejoinder:
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:True defilement, he continues, comes not from what a person puts into himself, but from what a person pulls out of himself – “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
What does this say about those who desperately cling to human traditions – be it the Latin Mass or a favorite 1960s “folk Mass” song? It comes down to this: Are we being just by dividing the Church against itself? Does our worship style make us more open to remediating injustice or more insular and prideful? Are we being greedy, attempting to keep God’s grace to ourselves? Are we being selfish and foolish, pretending that the world does not change and the musical tastes of our youth must be inflicted on subsequent generations?
So what does this say about the immutability of God? Does God’s immutability lie in his tactics, or in his overall strategy and values? Can God’s goodness be a constant while God’s method of achieving goodness change – and change often? Can God always be just, but achieve justice sometimes through granting rewards and sometimes through putting us through trials? Can God be always holy, but sometimes allow us to wallow in sin and perversion?
I think the answer is yes. And this relativizes the importance of valuing man-made traditions over those that are God-made and God-supported. Think about that the next time you are tempted to berate your atheistic neighbor who walks for peace, to laud some traditionalist friend who dismisses regular Catholics and apostates, or to appreciate the bishop who parrots the standard Church line and thereby considers himself wise.
A Church that is wise and just needs to be constantly involved in the world, constantly evolving, constantly changing. But just as with the broken clock that is right twice a day, a Church that stagnates can be just once in a while, but only by accident.
The image is from http://www.elegant-living.com/el_ISM-AM747.html, which shows a Mikado clock that is actually for sale.