One of our perennial struggles as a church is with legalism. Invariably we set up certain hoops which we believe must be jumped through if one is to make proper contact with God. Invariably too we are blind to the fact that we are doing this. Hardly ever does someone see himself or herself as a legalist. Yet that is how we are often perceived by those who are struggling, for whatever reason, with the church.

We all have, I think, a pretty good feel for how the old church (if I may use that phrase) was legalistic. The rules were pretty strict and if a man or woman couldn’t live up to them, well, he or she had to seek the consolation of God elsewhere. We have, I submit, considerably less of a feel for how we, who are trying to build a better church, are perpetuating this. Let me, in a way that is perhaps a bit devious, give an illustration:

I have always found a certain incident in Jesus’ ministry highly curious. It’s the occasion (Mark 7, 24-30) where a Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter and he refuses, telling her that “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But the woman persists, pointing out to Jesus that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” That answer changes Jesus’ mind. He mellows instantly and not only grants her the miracle she requests, but tells her that nowhere among the Jewish community had he found a greater faith than hers.

When one reads this account superficially it would seem that, at first, Jesus was pretty petty, legalistic, and hardly the role model we want. He refused this woman the miracle because she is not Jewish, pure and simple. In effect, he tells her that the Jewish people are the children, everyone else are the dogs! Ironically, though, examined more deeply, this incident reveals the reverse, Jesus’ freedom to act beyond legalism. How so?

Picture this: You are in charge of an RCIA program in your own parish. You have, through nearly 8 months, worked with a group of very sincere people who are preparing themselves to enter the church. You have met weekly, shared faith stories, prayed together, studied scripture and church doctrine together, participated in several very moving liturgies of initiation, and have just finished making an intense retreat together as the Vigil of Holy Saturday approaches and these persons, strongly supported by their sponsors, will to be baptized and received into the church. It is now less than an hour before the Vigil is to begin and you are giving some last minute instructions and encouragement to those who are about to be baptized, when a woman, a complete stranger, walks up to you and says: “I would like to be baptized too! Here, tonight, with these others!”

I doubt that she would receive baptism in very many of our churches. I suspect that our response would be similar to Jesus’ initial comment to the Syrophoenician woman: “It isn’t fair, you aren’t prepared like these others, you didn’t do the program!”  Yet Jesus, after that initial response, did baptize her that night. In effect, Jesus’ first line was: “You aren’t ready, you didn’t do the program, you didn’t do the RCIA which is called the Old Testament!” But the woman responds to this by showing him that, even though she has not done the formal program, she is just as ready as anyone who has. She gets the miracle, not because she did the program, but because she is ready.

There is a deep lesson in that incident for today’s church which, not infrequently, suffers from a new legalism, the legalism of program. We have, in recent years, developed many good programs (and they are programs, even when we refuse to call them that) to prepare people for baptism, marriage, eucharist, confirmation, and ministry. Please don’t get me wrong. Virtually always, these programs are good and necessary and have helped countless people. But, and this is the point, they have also, in many parishes and communities, become the only way, the non-negotiable avenue, to receive these sacraments. They have too become the new way power is wielded and the way that the poor (who have many faces) are again excluded from the church. Rare is the RCIA director who, if approached on Holy Saturday by a unknown woman, would pull that woman aside right there, interview her, and than decide that perhaps after all she is ready … even though she hasn’t done the prescribed program or process.

John Shea once suggested that Jesus was crucified because “he made God as accessible as the village well.”  I sometimes fear that so many of our our programs, good as they are, do not always make God quite that accessible.