Bishop of Lake Charles
22nd Sunday Ordinary Time
August 30, 2009
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” Deuteronomy 4:7
In France once I visited a family who had lived in the same house for over a thousand years. I sat in amazement as my hosts recounted stories of how their ancestors had fought with St. Jeanne d’Arc at the siege of Orleans or been saved from an angry mob during the Reign of Terror. The family lived with their tradition.
We may not live in a thousand-year-old house, but our families have traditions too. Our mother may have the recipe for grandmother’s gumbo. There may be a Bible in which are recorded the names and dates of all baptisms and weddings in the family. On a special shelf or in a locked cabinet or in a framed box, our parents may keep an heirloom watch or gold coin or item used by a great grandfather or mother. These are reminders of where we came from. They anchor us. They tell us about our roots. They are part of our tradition.
Religion too has tradition. In the Gospel of St. Mark, Jesus speaks of tradition. The Pharisees and scribes remind Jesus that there is a tradition regarding the washing of hands. “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” (Mark 7:5). The answer of Jesus to that question is most revealing. “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition” (Mark 7:8). Jesus is not saying that tradition is not important. He is saying that washing hands is a human tradition and we cannot place it on the same level as God’s command. It is what comes out of person that makes him unclean, “… evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit…. All these evils come from within and they defile” (Mark 7:21-23). God’s command is what disciplines these desires. The real tradition is what teaches God’s command. There are in effect two traditions. One is a human tradition that develops over time and can adjust with time. The second is a Divine tradition that insures that God’s commands are passed down faithfully from one generation to the next.
There is no writer in the New Testament that is more aware of this than St. Paul. St. Paul is ever so conscious that what he teaches must be faithful to what the Lord Jesus gave him. When St. Paul recounts the institution of the Eucharist, he writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (I Corinthians 11:23). The Gospel is a question of being connected. The Gospel is trustworthy because it is authentic. St. Paul will remind the Galatians, “If anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you received, let that one be accursed!” (Galatians 1:9). The Gospel message requires fidelity so that it can be passed on with integrity. “See to it, “ writes St. Paul, “that no one captivate you with an empty, seductive philosophy according to human tradition, according to the elemental powers of the world and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). The truth flows from Christ, and we must make sure that we are connected.
The Church is Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:22-23), and it insures that connection. Just as a body cannot be dismembered and survive, the truth of Christ’s teaching cannot be divided and remain true. When it comes to truth, unity is not optional. The credibility of the Gospel depends on the unity of the believers who teach it. The night before He died, Jesus prayed for those who would believe in Him. “I pray… that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21). Unity is at the very heart of what Jesus wills for His followers because unity preserves the truth of what He taught, as He said, “… that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me” (John 17:23).
Human tradition does not preserve the unity of the Body. We are speaking here of a tradition that transcends human tradition. The only tradition that matters is the tradition of unity that preserves the integrity of what Christ taught and insures the continuation of His message. As a family can live in a thousand year old house that helps define who they are, so we can live in a Church that keeps us connected to Christ. “All good giving and every perfect gift is from above,” St. James writes, “coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change” (James 1:17). Truth is a gift. That truth does not change with the latest opinion. There is no truth for yesterday and one for tomorrow. There is only truth, and a sacred tradition, kept alive in a living Body preserving that truth.