I was putting away some food that I bought yesterday afternoon, and I noticed something in one of the crispers that had been there longer than it should. My question is: can penicillin come from corn husks. And what is more disappointing than finding the leftover pizza that I thought would be great for lunch, but then not being able to tell if the grey looking stuff was part of the sausage or part of something else. Or when you get out that wonderful lump of parmesan cheese to shave onto the fresh pasta sauce and find large circles of green loveliness clinging to it. How can stuff that is so good just get so bad so quickly? If you are like me, it still surprises you and makes you a little sad—not to mention turns your stomach a bit.
How does something so good, turn into something so bad is also the question with which today’s scriptures grapple. How can religion, which is such a good thing, faith, which is responsible for so much human flourishing, that helps so many people hope and hang on, go bad? How does the practice of faith that has served so many and helps the poor like nothing else in the world, something so ancient, how does it sometimes become so toxic? And yet, we’ve all seen it. We’ve all seen it when the good of religion and faith and church, somehow turns bad inside and what comes out in anything but holy. The most extreme version of this comes in religiously sponsored violence: from Muslim jihads against people who believe differently to Christian crusades against those who believe differently. Is there a clearer sign of religion gone bad, or anything that turns our stomach more than faith-sponsored hate?
But beyond those extreme examples, the readings today give us each guidance as to whether or not our practice of religion continues to be good and nourishing and in line with the best of our tradition, or if in fact, for us, it may be a good time to clean out the refrigerator of our faith. I’m sure that there are many more ways to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy practices of our faith, but today the Scriptures give us at least three guiding criteria:
The first insight comes from James’ letter. He says clearly, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only. Religion that is pure … care(s) for orphans and widows.” How can we know if our practice of our faith is healthy and good and nourishing? James says that it leads us to compassionate action – to actually care more for the people of this world. James goes so far as to say that if my faith isn’t leading me to more compassionate, concrete actions, then it’s time to clean out the fridge.
Secondly, in addition to being “doer’s of the word,” Jesus says today that healthy religion also has to focus on what happens in our hearts, on our interiority. He says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” And later, it is “from within people, from their hearts” that come evil thoughts and sin.” Faith must make our hearts bigger. Unhealthy practice focuses too much on the exterior, on how I look to others? That begets the envy, arrogance and folly in that list of attitudes Jesus confronts. Questions like: “Am I doing this the “right” way? How much better am I than those who don’t do it this way? What have I merited by what I have done?” are signs that it’s time to clean out the fridge.
Finally, Jesus again focuses us on one of the values deepest to his own heart: that healthy religious practice is inclusive. It seeks to increase access for those who wish to be a member of a loving community. One of Jesus’ great critiques of the religious practice of his day was these “human traditions” that we cling to all too often put us as the insiders, and others as unwelcome. We become a spiritual country club of the elite instead of people of the gospel. When I find myself keeping people out of my sphere of love and influence, it’s time to clean out the fridge.
The practice of faith, like the food in the back of my refrigerator, can start to go bad.
Or it can be one of the most transforming things of all.
This week, look at the way that you practice the faith with that gospel question to guide you – is it time to clean out the fridge?