We are special and pretty much unique in Europe. Unlike anywhere else in Continental Europe, we drive on the left-hand side of the road. Similarly, we have different power sockets. Many still prefer to use Imperial units rather than metric ones to measure things. We are so used to the British way of life that we realise those and many other differences only when we go abroad or when we come across foreigners in our midst. Usually most of us can cope quite well when confronted with cultural differences, either by adapting to them or by yielding to them, or by quiet persistence. Yet sometimes the challenge is too much even for a hardy British soul. I read recently about a British woman who complained to the tour operator about a Spanish resort she’d gone to on her holidays. She moaned that the people there spoke Spanish, that the food served there was Spanish and that it was very hot all the time. Totally unexpected and surprising when you go to Spain in the summer, of course…
We are special and pretty much unique in Europe. Or so we think. In that respect, today’s first reading can sound a familiar note: ‘No other people is as wise and prudent as this great nation.’ In Moses’ mind, the people of Israel were special and unique among their neighbours and – by definition – superior to their neighbours. Which was quite a claim for a nation that, for most of its existence, was subject to the imperial powers of its neighbours. Yet, over the millenia, Moses was proven right in a specific way. The Jewish religion, Judaism, has become the Jews’ internal homeland, regardless of their personal political circumstances. Judaism with its beliefs, Law, customs and traditions helped the Jews to keep their national identity through persecution, political turmoil, exile and diaspora. It’s actually quite astonishing how Jewish identity remains so strong after the Jews have suffered so much and for so long at the hands of so many persecutors. It shows that traditions and customs based on religion can hold a great deal of power of resistance against the odds.
Yet, simultaneously, such customs and traditions can present a threat to the religious beliefs they are based on and derived from. In our country we celebrate Christmas in certain ways; but for many of our fellow Scots, the religious aspect of Christmas has been completely lost. On a personal level, it is possible for religious traditions and customs to become substitutes for individual religious engagement. Jesus warns us in today’s gospel against such an attitude: ‘This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me.’ He disparaged his opponents’ adherence to their hallowed traditions. Not because those traditions were inherently faulty, but because they served to justify their holders’ inaction or downright criminality.
In today’s second reading St James offers an antidote to hollow religious customs and traditions: ‘Pure, unspoilt religion is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.’ Admittedly, the language is old-fashioned, and the pronouncement is made in the context of specific social circumstances. But the message translates to two inseparable attitudes: (1) active charity towards others; and (2) one’s continuous development of a personal, close relationship with Jesus. The latter can prevent us from falling into the trap of self-satisfaction, while the former field-tests our credibility. As today’s psalm has it: ‘The just will live in the presence of the Lord.’