The Silence of True Religion
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rule of St. Benedict contains an entire chapter on “The Restraint of Speech” which includes the instruction that “speaking and teaching are the master’s task; the disciple is to be silent and listen.” Here, the master in question is the abbot, the head of the monastery, and the disciple is the monk, but this instruction comes straight from the original relationship between Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. Jesus was the Word made Flesh, and as such, it was fitting that his life on earth would be characterized by speaking and teaching -- by words -- and those who followed him being characterized by receptive listening -- by silence.
So one of the basic ideas of Christianity is that, in a very real sense, Jesus, as the Incarnate Word of God, has said all that there is to be said, indeed, is all that there is to be said. What remains for Christians to do is as simple as it is nearly impossible: basically, we’re called to be a massive collective of people across time whose shared life together in the Church amounts to one big “what he said… no further comment.” All the introverts are like, “Yes, I have found the true religion.”
A quick disclaimer. I’m obviously up here talking, as one of the clergy does every Sunday, and the New Testament itself is full of passages which explicitly command us to share the good news with the world. “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”, Paul asks in Romans 10. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” There is clearly, technically, something that needs to be said about Jesus. You know, there’s that famous quote that’s falsely attributed to St. Francis -- “preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” -- and Episcopalians just love that quote because it lets us get away with the fact that we’ve not really found the words to be all that necessary in the first place. Yeah, that’s not what this is. The last thing that I want us to walk away thinking is how nice it is that we can just keep our little religious opinions to ourselves, lest we spoil polite company. We should all be talking about Jesus. Good to clear that up.
So what we’re left with is this peculiar religion where simultaneously say the Psalms, pray our prayers, preach the Gospel, confess the faith, and speak the truth all the while grounding ourselves on the fact that words fail upon encounter with an infinite God. “We preach Christ crucified” is just as much a claim about the failure of language, the death of the Word, as it is a claim about the content of our proclamation.
Let’s look at the recurring theme in today’s passages.
“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak.”
“Welcome with meekness the implanted word.”
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”
And from the Gospel today:
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Both Jesus in Mark’s Gospel and James in his epistle are concerned with the emptiness of speech, or at least the potential emptiness. There is something about words which has the power to create a really convincing false reality. And whether it’s James’ distinction between doers of the word and hearers of the word, or Jesus’ warning about the honor given with the lips, but not with the heart, that’s really what we’re dealing with here. False reality. Or, included in there, false religion. The neglect for widows and orphans, along with all manner of evil intentions -- Jesus gives us a hefty list -- can easily and comfortably exist alongside all manner of pious words and religious traditions. Perhaps the simplest way to understand ideology is to think about like a big floating ball of talking that is completely divorced from reality. Our words, our prejudices, our cliches, our certainties, our memes just add up to this big artificial ideological apparatus. Ideology is reality by proxy. And what’s lost in the noise is the direct attention on What Is Actually Happening. That children were abused and the abusers were sheltered. That families were separated and irrevocably traumatized by a vindictive state. Indeed, to even name What Is Happening is a subversive act unto itself, as it calls the bluff on all of the spin and all of the rationalizations that we are implicated in.
“For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” To get caught up in excessive speech is to succumb to this fundamental amnesia. We forget who we are and where we are. We lose the attention.
So in light of all of that, we have to reckon with how our words are supposed to relate first to silence, then to action, and then finally, how words, silence, and action are all supposed to cohere with the implanted word of Christ in us. Because that’s where we will find our true religion.
First, because Jesus is all that there is to be said, we have to understand that our words are only of a proximate value. It is telling, to return to St. Benedict, that he considered silence so important that “that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk.” It’s not even about good speaking versus bad speaking, but about speaking itself. Because the Christian life is one of increasing transparency to the life of Christ in us, part of what that entails is a healthy distance from our own little constructions and opinions and viewpoints. Instead, “welcome with meekness the implanted word.” Christ has already taken up residence in the souls of those united to him; the task at hand is to bring our exterior lives into conformity with what is already interior. In other words, the task is to get out of our own way. We can start simple: how about cultivating a discipline of intentional silence, not just for private meditation, but also when you’re out and about. What do you find yourself expressing when you pause from expressing yourself in words?
Next, having chastened our words in accordance with the life of Christ in us, we move to consider our actions. This is where our Gospel text for today get interesting. Why does Jesus call the scribes and the Pharisees hypocrites for asking about his disciples’ unwashed hands? It’s not just that they adhere to a certain custom of hand-washing, but rather, as Jesus cites from Isaiah, that they teach human precepts as doctrines. And not only does this offend the commandment of God by equating it with human traditions, but it also sets up a convenient proxy by which to display one’s false piety. Washing one’s hands becomes a token gesture that signals one’s obedience of the tradition and therefore, presumably, of God. All the while it is “from within,” as Jesus says, “from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” The implication here is, again, that all of these evils can and do coexist with our simulated acts of piety. These “human precepts” function like empty words. They establish an artificial world which diverts attention away from what is actually happening. Religion thus becomes complicit with the power that corrupts.
The solution to this, turning to James, is to move from one’s silence before God into right action, that is, religion that is pure and undefiled before God. It is a strange juxtaposition in the last verse of the James passage. “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” On the one hand are those who succumb to excessive speech, thereby deceiving their hearts. But on the other are those who are not characterized by any kind of speech at all, but rather by the care of orphans and widows. There is a silence here. To engage in true religion, we don’t just change the topic of discussion to something better. This is to continue building up those human precepts. Instead, we quite literally stop talking and get after the good works which God has prepared for us to do. Ora et labora. Pray and work.
Being slow to speak is so much more than the literal act of restraining one’s speech, though that’s certainly involved. Being slow to speak is the template for the Christian life of discernment. It refuses the false sense of security offered by presumptuous religious talk and by token acts of piety, working instead in silent devotion of true religion. If we pursue this religion, we will still speak and we will still perform acts of piety, but we will have been renewed by the perfect law, the law of liberty, and we will be blessed in our doing. Amen.
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