People criticize Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands before eating, as we see in today’s Gospel (Mk 7:1-8, -15, 21-23). Mark tells us that washing hands was a traditional custom along with others, such as washing cups and jugs and cleaning food from the market. All of these are good hygiene. Unfortunately, these practices had taken on the seriousness of a moral responsibility.
Through the centuries, people have tried to know what God wants. For instance, the African traditional religions, similar to the Jews, offered animal sacrifices.
In today’s reading from Deuteronomy, Moses instructs the people that the commandments are given by God and no one should “add to them” (Dt 4:2; cf. Dt 12:32). Yet with time, a variety of traditions gradually were attached to the Law.
The prophets focused religion on the internal aspects. Jesus reminds His listeners of Isaiah’s words: “This people pays Me lip service but their hearts are from Me. Empty is the reverence they do Me because they teach as doctrines mere human precepts” (Mk 7:6; cf. Is 29:13).
Our understanding of God determines what we think He wants from us. Today’s reading from James affirms: “Every good gift, every perfect gift comes down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (Js 1:17). God is a father, the giver of every good gift. Paul reminds us that, everything is a gift: “What do you have that you have not received?”
(1 Cor 4:7)
According to James, God continues to act upon us: “He wishes to bring us to birth by the word of His truth so that we can become the first fruits of all His creatures” (Js 1:18). In addition to our birth as humans, God brings us to a spiritual birth by the word of truth.
Our response is to open ourselves to this word: “Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you, with its power to save you. Act on this word. If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourselves” (Js 1:21-22).
Our response to God should first of all be gratitude! St. Thomas Aquinas reflects upon meaning of “gratitude”: “When there is greater favor on the part of the giver greater thanks are due on the part of the recipient. A favor is bestowed gratis (freely)…” (2a2ae. 106, 2).
Thomas points out that the favor we receive may be greater when the one receiving has a certain innocence: “In this way the innocent ones owe greater thanksgiving because they receive a greater gift from God, absolutely speaking, a more continuous gift…”
(2a2ae. 106, 2).
At the same time, those who have sinned, probably all of us, receive a greater favor: “The penitent is more bound to give thanks than the innocent, because what he receives is more gratuitously given: since, whereas he was deserving of punishment, he has received grace” (2a2ae. 106, 2).
Traditionally, our response to God was described as “religion” not in the sense of a denomination but as a virtue related to justice.
There have been various explanations of meaning of the Latin word, religio, from which the English word “religion” is derived. Thomas Aquinas can see some truth in each of the explanations: “Whether ‘religion’ takes its name from frequent reading, or from a repeated choice of what has been lost through negligence, or from being a bond, it denotes properly a relation to God” (2a2ae. 81, 1).
Thomas affirms: “For it is He to whom we ought to be bound as our unfailing principle; to whom also our choice should be resolutely directed as our last end; and whom we lose when we neglect Him by sin, and should recover by believing in Him and confessing our faith” (2a2ae. 81, 1).
There are a number of ramifications to this definition. First of all, religion is a relation between ourselves and God. God is the principle, that is, our reference point in whatever we do. God should be the overarching purpose to which we direct every aspect of our lives. Our choices should be directed to union with Him, our last end.
Our relationship with God directs the elements of our lives towards Him. In addition to the worship that we give to God, all the other elements of our lives are oriented towards Him.
James asserts: “Religion pure and undefiled before God the Father is to help orphans and widows in their affliction and not to buy into the values of the world” (Js 1:27).
Virtues are directed to actions. Thomas explains that the virtue of religion entails two types of actions. The first are those actions that are “proper” are those “by which we are directed to God alone, such as, sacrifice and adoration.”
At the same time, our service to our neighbors gives honor to God, as Thomas states, “And just as out of charity we love our neighbor for God’s sake, so the services we render our neighbor redound to God, according to ‘As long as you did it to one of these least of My brothers, you did it to Me’ (Mt 25:40). Consequently, those services which we render our neighbor, in so far as we refer them to God, are described as sacrifices… and it belongs properly to religion to offer sacrifice to God…”(2a2a. 188, 2).
The First Letter of John asks, “How can someone say he loves God whom he cannot see and does not love his brother whom he can see” (1 John 4:20).
In her book, The Dialogue, St. Catherine of Siena tells us that God instructed her, “You cannot do anything for Me. What you would do for Me do for your brothers and sisters.”
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Vol. II trans. English Dominicans (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1947).