A Family Gift: Practical Integrity (Mk 3:1-6)
If you were hired as the Public Relations director for the Jerusalem Pharisees and Scribes mentioned in Mark, you wouldn’t want this section of the gospel to get too much circulation. In their confrontations with Jesus, they come off so badly – hypocrites, vain worshipers, dissemblers of what God’s teaching really is, oppressors of the little people, spiritual phonies.
But commentators say there were other Pharisees whose hearts and intentions were in a much better place. And that was because through these regulations, they were trying to do the very worthwhile thing of bringing Temple life together with domestic life. They had built up a series of practices, like purifying plates and vessels, which aimed to intermix what they enacted at worship with what they carried out at home. So the reason for the everyday rinsing of jugs and cups in the kitchen was not better hygiene but rather to associate that very ordinary chore with the washings of the sacred vessels that went on in the Temple. The intent was to link up the two worlds of the Sabbath and the rest of the week and do this in subtle ways.
You might recognize something of this idea in what your parents and grandparents did when placing religious objects around the house. That picture of the Sacred Heart above the couch in the living room, that strand of palm behind a picture frame, that little bedroom portrait of St. Christopher helping the little child across the narrow bridge. These were meant to be reminders of the sacred as it mixed in with our daily lives. These were ways to link up the holy events that went on in Church on Sunday with the ordinary things that happened at home in the course of the week.
And this was the intent of the best of the Pharisees with their book of unwritten laws (some 613 precepts!). These were practices that would weave the stuff of the sacred through the stuff of everyday life.
But today, we hear Jesus aiming his criticism at the worst use of these customs.
Translated to our times, it might mean a house with a cross over the door and no one inside ever going to Church. Or stepping into a home where there’s lots of deceit and dissension going on, but its occupants “religiously” say the family rosary. Or seeing a hall portrait of St. Vincent feeding the orphans, and the folks living there leading a charge against local welfare reform.
In these instances, there’s next-to-no connection between the external signs and what these signs are trying to convey. There’s a disconnect between what the symbols and practices are saying and how the people are acting. And so that Sacred Heart on the wall has little to do with its true intent to have us cooperate in God’s love showering down on the world. Integrity is missing, the focus on surface appearances has little commerce in the fiery love going on inside that Heart. This is the distortion of the law Jesus is getting at when he calls on Isaiah to make His case, “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Among other things this suggests to us is a particular saving grace embedded in our Vincentian tradition. And that is the gift of practical integrity. While at times our charism can take on too much practicality (“I have to work all the time”), it does have a decided leaning toward the hands-on follow-through. Anyone reading Vincent and Louise would have a hard time justifying a spirituality that doesn’t keep its feet firmly in the soil of real-world praxis, that stays only with thoughts and intentions and feelings.
Centuries before Louise and Vincent, the apostle James sounded this call. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for the orphans and the widows…” (Jas. 1:27). And how well the two of them pick up on this. There’s a Vincentian family impatience with words and symbols that are thin and empty. There’s a gene in our tradition which doesn’t have much tolerance for disconnects between internal conviction and external behavior, especially in deeds for those who are needy.
The point? A kind of atmospheric pressure has built up in Vincent’s Family that would connect the inner and the outer, that would push us to follow through on high-sounding intentions and words with practical action, in particular towards people who are poor.
This is not to say that every one of us in the Family has been totally in step with this ideal of Jesus, the inside matching up with the outside. Nor is it either to contend that everybody in the family hits the mark James sets out, “the pure and undefiled religion that expresses itself in care for the needy.” But it can be said that there are very many forces in our Vincentian tradition which are always pushing us in just that direction. Or to put it more lyrically, “the arc of the Vincentian world is always bending toward practical charity and religious integrity.”
If these stark critiques Jesus gives to the Jerusalem Pharisees strike a deep chord in us, at least part of the reason is the long term conditioning we’ve all been given while living inside this ecosphere nourished by Louise and Vincent.
Jesus is telling us that our Church-world and our home-world are intended to sustain each other, that our sacred and our secular spheres are meant be integral, that our religious observances, both internal and external, are to blossom in concrete service to the stranger and the needy.
It’s this, our family heritage of “practical integrity,” which helps us to listen to Jesus critique with ever more sensitive ears and receptive hearts.