How often these days we hear people asserting that they are spiritual but not religious? This usually means the speaker has no formal institutional religious affiliation but is trying to live a good life by following personal conscience. The assertion also implies an indictment: the person has abandoned church-going because they allege their church was more concerned with externals of belonging to the institution than with conscientious moral living day to day.
Unfortunately this assertion is also common among Christians. These people imply that Christian religious affiliation itself is inherently superficial because it is preoccupied with fulfilling external religious obligations that relate to church belonging rather than with fostering the interior life of the person.
This accusation related to Christianity is invalid. All agree that the heart of being Christian is proclaiming and following the message of Jesus. Jesus’ dialogue with his disciples in today’s gospel cuts to the heart of the Christian message asserting that internal disposition of heart, not punctilious external obligation, is central to following Jesus.
Doubtless Jesus was engaged in a discussion about the Jewish food laws as contained in the Jewish law. Does observation of these make one holy and lack of observation defile one? Jesus is forthright: “Are even you likewise without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from the outside cannot defile. . . .But what comes out of a man, that is what defiles him.”
Jesus’ message throughout the Gospel is primarily heart-centered, love-centered! Over and over again Jesus calls disciples to a quality of life that flows from love; on occasion he is even willing to break the law if it interferes with loving others. Witness this in his healings on the Sabbath. Witness this also also in his teaching that the whole law and the prophets are summed up in the two great commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor. Yes, witness this also in his condemnation of Pharisees whom he called “hypocrites.”
The dichotomy between being spiritual and being religious makes no sense for a Christian. We disciples of Jesus are both spiritual and religious. We are privileged to belong to our religious institutions because they help us be faithful to Jesus’ call to love God and neighbor with our entire heart, mind, soul and body — in short, to become the persons that God created us to be!