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Finding the Right Proportion

August 30, 2015 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause

August 30, 2015
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Fr. George Smiga

Today’s gospel is very easy to misunderstand. The Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat, and Jesus argues against them. But Jesus is not arguing against hand washing. Hand washing was one of several devout practices that Jews of Jesus’ time used to express their faith in God. In the Catholic tradition, something similar would be the sign of the cross: a ritual gesture that expresses devotion and faith. So handwashing in itself, like the sign of the cross, was a good thing. And Jesus knew it. He argues against the Pharisees, not because they wash their hands, but because they focus on handwashing to the exclusion of more important things.

So Jesus’ argument is really one of proportion. He wants people of faith to understand what is important in their faith and what is more important. This is a useful lesson for us because oftentimes, like the Pharisees, we can fixate on a particular good thing that is not the most valuable thing. In the complex world in which we live, our choices are not always between something bad and something good, but oftentimes between something good and something better. Therefore it is important for us to realize what is the greater value and let it guide us.

We can see this in family life. We all want the people in our families to make wise decisions: whom to marry, where to work, how to use our money. Making wise decisions is a good thing. But it is not the only good thing. It is also a good thing that the members of a family accept one another unconditionally, whether they make foolish decisions or wise ones. So making wise decisions is a good thing and accepting one another unconditionally is a good thing. Which is the more important good thing? Knowing the answer to that will help us live family life well.

We can also see this in the national debate over immigration. As you listen to people talk about this issue, time and again they emphasize the security of our borders. Now, having secure borders is a good thing. A country cannot protect itself without secure borders. But it is not the only good thing. Another good thing is to welcome the stranger. In the teaching of Jesus, this is one of the values that will determine our judgment on the last day. So securing our borders is a good thing, and welcoming the stranger is a good thing. Which is the more important good thing? Knowing the answer to that question will help us devise a sound immigration policy.

Using our natural resources to make a profit is a good thing. It provides jobs and livelihood for many. But it is not the only good thing. Protecting our air and our water from pollution so they might continue to give life to us all is also a good thing. Which is the greater good thing? Knowing the answer to that question will help us build a better world.

Now, of course, the ideal is always to do all the good things that we can—to wash our hands as well as to serve with love and mercy, to make the sign of the cross as well as to feed the poor. But in this complex world in which we live, it is essential that we discover the right proportion. If we do not, we could fixate on one good thing and ignore a more important thing. If that were to happen to us, then we run the risk of falling under the criticism of Isaiah in today’s gospel. We could hear God say to us, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

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