Sunday, Sept. 2, is the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B). Mass Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8, Psalm 15:2-5, James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Sometimes we hear people running down the concept of religion. “Jesus didn’t come to bring us a religion,” they say, “but he wants to have a relationship with us.” Other times, we hear people say they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” Both of these are based on an impoverished understanding of what religion is — as if it simply consisted of unimportant rituals or arbitrary doctrines.

But real religion involves neither of these. It doesn’t contain arbitrary doctrines, but truths that have been revealed by God. It also involves genuine relationships with God, with Christ and with our fellow human beings.

Thus St. James tells us that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Having a real relationship with God means not only loving him, but loving our neighbors, as well — especially our less fortunate neighbors.

Yet it is possible to become too focused on external rituals. This happened with Jesus’ critics, who faulted his disciples for not washing their hands before they ate, in violation of the custom of their day. But this custom was not based on God’s teaching. It isn’t found in the Mosaic Law. Jesus thus rebuked his critics for “teaching as doctrines human precepts.”

Like the prophets before him, Jesus made it clear that moral values take precedence over mere ritual observances: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within, and they defile.”

This is not to say that rituals are unimportant. Ritual appears in every culture, showing that it’s built into human nature. Thus God gave Israel rituals alongside moral commandments in the Old Testament Law. This Law was a model of wisdom for the people of the ancient Near East, and by observing it, the Israelites would show “wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’”

God has ordained different rituals for us today, but ritual — together with the moral imperatives that flow from the ethic of love — is an important part of how we relate to God.

Rather than talking down religion, we should recognize and embrace the concept, for it is a biblical one. In doing so, we should embrace the impulse for ritual that God built into human nature, but we should also recognize the transcendent importance of love. This is taught in both the Old and the New Testaments. When Jesus identified the first and second great commandments as love of God and love of neighbor, he was quoting from the Law of Moses.

We thus should “be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” And we always should strive to be one who “walks blamelessly and does justice; who thinks the truth in his heart,” for “whoever does these things shall never be disturbed.”

Jimmy Akin is the senior apologist at Catholic Answers,

a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine and a weekly

guest on Catholic Answers Live. He blogs at NCRegister.com.