There has never been a greater denunciation of all forms of mere externalism in religion than the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel. What do I mean by externalism? It is that approach to religion where words are bold but deeds are few, where one proclaims to others a heavy duty before God, and then find a way around that duty for oneself. Where religious office and authority and practices are used to gain public attention (for instance the exaggerated outward dress of certain pharisees) or public acclaim and human respect (places of honor at public functions), titles of adulation (in this case the formal title rabbi or father). Jesus did not condemn the Jewish forms of religious dress as such, but He condemned wearing these things just for show, like the leaders who wore huge ornaments that could not help but make them stand out in a crowd. Jesus did not condemn the use of the title Rabbi or father as such, but rather the desire for this title just to gain prominence and status, that is for the same reason that his enemies sought the first places at banquets and in the synagogues, personal vanity and social ambition.
Thus religion itself, even the true religion revealed by God, could be deformed, manipulated into a means of self-glorification, pride and ambition for public honors. There will always be a temptation to abuse true religion, to use religion for unworthy purposes, and to use the external elements of religion for these purposes while having no interior religious devotion to God.
The result of all this causes scandal, and it leads some people to suggest that there is something wrong in itself with religious authority and the externals of religion, in themselves. It is suggested by some that all religious authority corrupts just like political power, and that pure religion has to do away with authority. Religious purists would suggest that religion must do away with all external elements and become a pure interior worship of God. This may even have it’s appeal to us at times when we see the abuse of religion, but there are two huge problems; first such a religion in the end is inhuman, and secondly, such a religion has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, that is it is anti-Christian plain and simple.
That it has nothing to do with Jesus is clear even from today’s Gospel. Jesus in no way suggest there is not to be a religious authority. Indeed he shocks us perhaps by stating point blank that the authority of the Pharisees is both legitimate and from God. He says that ins spite of their vanity and pride, they are to be obeyed when they speak as the successors of Moses. Moses had received his authority from God, and they inheited it from Moses, just as Jesus’ apostles and their successors will receive their authority from Him by ordination. Thus Jesus says that the Scribes and Pharisees, in spite of their personal shortcomings, are to be obeyed when that are proclaiming the law of Moses, that is, when they are acting simply as the faithful custodians of the Mosaic law. He himself
obeyed this law and the legitimate traditions of his people procliamed by the Scribes and Pharisees: he went up for the feast at Jerusalem, he sent persons he cured to the temple priests to make the prescribed offering, he paid the temple tax, he attended the Synagogue, etc.
Nor does Jesus ever attack the external forms of religion as such. He criticizes the abuse of the temple by money-changers, but not the external sacrifices as such. Jesus Himself uses external rituals in some his miracles. He subjects himself to severe fasts, 40 days in the desert. He celebrates the passover meal in which he institutes the Eucharist. He institutes other sacraments which are outward signs, external rituals. It is just nonsense to see in the Jesus of the Gospels a revolutionary who rejects either religious authority as such or external elements of religion as such.
What Jesus rejects is the divorce of these external signs from the interior attitudes and devotion they are meant to express in a wonderfully human way, and he condemns even more so the degrading of these sacred elements by using them for purposes which are the opposite of religious devotion, for the kinds of base purposes he condemns in today’s Gospel.
But this attempt to purify religion of authority and external ritual is not only anti-Christian, it is anti-human. Such a pure religion may be suitable to angels, but not to creatures of flesh and blood. Man needs to express the interior movements of his mind and heart externally, especially when it comes to love. How long does love last between married couples when all the external signs of love disappear? How secure would children be of their parents love if their parents never gave them a kiss or hug? Men are not angels, pure spirits. We use signs, words, actions to express what we think, what we desire, what we love. Jesus became a man to show us God’s love in his every wors and action, because we needed these external expressions of divine love. Religion without external expression is not Christian, not even human.
The great Cardinal Newman said this about such a purely interior or spiritual religion: There is no such thing as abstract religion. When persons attempt to worship in, what they call, a more spiritual manner, they end, in fact, in not worshiping at all. The religion of Jesus Christ is no such abstract, purely spiritual worship of the Father. He did not take flesh in order to reject the body when it came to worship of the Father. What he did was purify human ritual of ritualism, the tendency to cut ritual off from its roots in the soul of man, as if external ritual could be true worship of God without being an expression of the interior of man.
Indeed, Jesus brought religious ritual to its perfection by giving it its absolutely perfect content. The Mass He instituted expresses and actually realizes the deepest interior act of human worship, the perfect obedience of Christ in his act of self-sacrifice on the Cross, and at the same time His resurrection which perfectly glorifies God whose power raises man to life.
Jesus is the one High Priest who offers the perfect sacrifice in every Mass.
Thus, the Christian ritual of the Mass is the fulfillment of all other religious acts of worship. Likewise, Jesus alone is truly Rabbi, the teacher, because His word is absolute truth, fuflilling every other word of truth. And His Father alone is Father in the ultimate religious meaning of that word, because He alone is the origin of everything. All others can be called by these names opr exercise these roles only in a secondary and purely subordinate way. Our roles are always the roles simply of servants; God alone is the Master, Rabbi, Father of us all. That belief is what keeps us humble before God and man, and holds out promise that one day we will be exalted with Jesus Our Lord.