Social scientists note that there are definite stages in the development of human moral character.  Children need well-defined rules of behavior with the promise/threat of rewards/punishment as a consequence of misbehavior. With more life-experience and a growing sense of personal selfhood, one tends to balance strict obedience to rules with heightened awareness of the inevitable complexity of real-life situations. One thus feels free to bend the rules occasionally for the sake of what is thought to be a higher good (either for the self or for others).

Self-deception, of course, can always play a role here. But in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus takes that chance in chastising the Scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy in rigidly conforming to prescribed Jewish rituals simply to gain favor with one another.  One should rather seek moral perfection in serving the needs of others as the second reading for this Sunday (James 1:27) recommends.

—Fr. Joseph Bracken, S.J. is an emeritus professor of theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH.