February 8, 2011 - Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

There is a difference between the human tradition that the Pharisees were following religiously and God’s commandment which they had invented excuses for disobeying. It would not be strictly correct to suggest that the Pharisees were following something easy instead of something hard. All that ritual washing before every meal could not exactly be called easy. The difference between the human tradition and the commandment is that the one is limited while the other is unlimited.

There is something comforting about a limited rule. If we look at the Precepts of the Church we see one right away: “Attend Mass on Sundays and all Holy Days of Obligation.” It does not say “enjoy Mass” or “participate well at Mass”; our obligation is simply to show up at a particular place at a particular time about 55 times a year. This is a limited obligation. It is easy to tell when you need to attend Mass. It is easy to tell whether you have attended Mass. If someone is trying to follow Christ, not at a stage where they are picking and choosing, but, like the Pharisees, totally committed in principle to their religion, they love the limited obligations.

It is the unlimited obligations we struggle with. “Honor your father and mother” is a much more difficult commandment than “Do not commit adultery.” With the limited obligations, we know where we stand, but where do the unlimited obligations begin and end? How much honor exactly do I owe my parents? What does it mean to honor them? How much exactly is this honor going to cost me?

Because these limited obligations are easier, there is a temptation in religion to limit the unlimited obligations. “Support the Church” could mean giving 10% of your income to your local parish, an easy calculation. “Honor your father and mother” could mean a card for each of them once a year. We must defy this temptation. When we limit the unlimited, we become simply practitioners of a science of sorts: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Religion should include some limited obligations, a framework on which to build our relationship with Jesus, but that relationship and the obligations of that relationship are unlimited. We can never say about our service of God, “I am done for today; I have finished everything.”