Two young newlyweds were preparing to enjoy their first baked ham dinner in their new apartment. After unwrapping the meat and setting it on the cutting board, the wife chopped off both ends of the ham with a knife and tossed the two small ends in the garbage can. “Wait a minute,” said the husband. “Why did you do that? Why did you just cut off the ends of the ham and throw them away?” “I don’t know. My mother always did,” answered the wife. “Maybe it helps bring out the flavor.” Unsatisfied with this answer, the husband called his mother-in-law. “Can you tell me why you cut the two ends off a ham before you cook it?” “Well,” said the mother, “I’m not really sure why. That’s just the way my mother did her ham, and it was always delicious.” As soon as he hung up he called his wife’s grandmother. “Grandma, we have an important question for you. Can you tell us why you cut the ends off a ham before you cook it?” “Oh, my yes, dear,” answered Grandma in her quiet, thin voice. “I cut the ends of the ham off so it would fit in my pan.
This is the power of habit. Once we learn a pattern of behavior, that pattern tends to rule our lives. There can be other ways of acting or thinking, but we usually give in to the pattern we already know, because it is habitual. This seems to be the problem for the scribes in today’s gospel. They inherited a tradition of ritually washing their hands before meals, and they criticize Jesus’ disciples for not following the practice. The scribes were not trying to cause trouble. They were simply giving a custom, a habit, more importance and authority than it deserved. The power of the habit prevented them from recognizing that other and even better ways of acting were possible.
The word of God today calls us to look at the habits, the patterns of behavior in our own life, and to realize the power that they have over us. Certain habits might indeed be good. But there are other habits that hold us back and lessen our ability to live. I imagine that many here this morning have the habit of coming to church on the weekend. If it’s Sunday, it’s into the car and to St. Joseph. Now in itself that habit of coming to church is good. But we should not confuse the habit of showing up with the worship of God. What God asks of us is not simply to show up, but to be open to God’s word in our lives. Being physically present in church is not the same as being open to expect God to address us, to change us, and to call us to service. But all too often the habit of coming is given equal weight with the reality of worship, and that can hold us back from growth.
Some of us might have the habit of comfort, the habit of least resistance. We find ourselves in front of the television set or the computer screen, and hours go by. Over the course of the week we can waste a great deal of time. We never stop to ask ourselves, “What could I accomplish if I spent that time in another way?” I could call a friend that I’ve been meaning to talk to. I could ask the kids how things went in school. I could exercise. I might even find a way of serving my neighbor. All of these things are real possibilities, real options for our time. But we never seize them, because the habit of inactivity, the habit of least resistance, kicks in.
Some of us might have the habit of forgetfulness. We live every day with people in our family, we see our friends often, but we forget how important these people are to us. When was the last time that we remembered why we love our spouse? When was the last time we remembered why we were proud of our children or thankful for our friends? Because of the habit of forgetfulness we often live from day to day without ever recognizing the blessings that we have been given.
God calls us to grow, to deepen our life. Change is possible. Growth is a reality. But only if we face the habits that are holding us back. If we do not examine the habits in our life that are stifling us, we give them more power over us. We are a gifted people. We have a great potential. We have a bright future. But if we do not recognize the habits that are controlling us, that future, that potential, those gifts can be lost.
Today’s readings explain what true religion is. It is not simply a scrupulous, external observance of rules, laws, traditions and rituals. It is a loving, obedient relationship with God expressed in obeying His Commandments, worshipping Him, recognizing His presence in other human beings and rendering them loving and humble service. Prayers, rituals, Sacraments and religious practices only help us to practice this true religion in our daily lives.