Religion Is Caring

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 26, Year 1 (Pentecost 23, 2015)

Ezra 8:35 ~ At that time those who had come from captivity, the returned exiles, offered burnt-offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin-offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt-offering to the Lord.

Matthew 14:19b-20 ~ Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

I don’t usually quote from two of the Daily Office lessons in these little private meditations of mine (they “feel” private, anyway; I seldom get any replies or comments). Today, however, the contrast between the grossly exorbitant – one is tempted to say “wasteful” – sacrifice in the story of Ezra and the frugal but plentiful picnic in Matthew is so striking, I had to mention it. It seems to me that what these two contrasting lessons do is illustrate two different understandings of religion.

“Religion” as a concept seems to be pretty universally understood as a set of beliefs, to which may be attached ceremonies, rituals, and moral codes. Just take a look at a few of the definitions or comments one finds on major websites:

“A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.” (Wikipedia)

“An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” (Merriam-Webster)

“Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” (

“For good or for evil, faith factors into our everyday functioning: We’ve evolved to believe. Religion can help us make sense of our world, provide motivation, and bind us together.” (Psychology Today)

The Psychology Today comment ends with an oblique reference to the commonly understood origin of the English word “religion” which is, I think, instructive in considering the different pictures or religion in today’s lessons.

If one delves into the etymology of the word, one finds its earliest use in Anglo-French, first, to describe the state of life bound by monastic vows, and only later to describe the pious conduct all persons, lay and “religious” alike, indicating a belief in a divine power, and still later to describe the institutions which foster and encourage such pious behavior.

It is derived from the Latin “religionem” which connotes a respect for the sacred and reverence for the gods. Roman philosophers and other writers used it, also, to refer to conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation, modes of worship, and the ritual observances of cults. However, they seem in disagreement about its origins.

The Roman grammarian Servius (“ad Virgil”) and the Christian philosopher Lactantius (“De Rerum Natura”) both believed it came from “religare” which means “to bind up.”

Cicero (De Natura Deorum), however, argues that it comes from “relegere” meaning “to read again” or “to go over again in reading, speech, or thought.”

Another source of the English word, perhaps another stream flowing into its meaning, comes from a Germanic root, “rak” through the Old English “reck” meaning “to have a care for.” The Latin word, “religiens” meaning “careful” (as the opposite of “negligens,” negligent) would support this understanding, and give credence Cicero’s derivation which implies careful consideration.

Which brings us back to the two stories in today’s lectionary readings. It seems to me that they illustrate these two alternative approaches to religion. Ezra’s over-the-top sacrifice of nearly 200 head of livestock results from religion understood as a set of binding rules proscribing behavior and prescribing rituals and ceremonies. Jesus’ feeding of the multitude with a few fish and loaves of brad illustrates religion understood as caring.

Obviously, the general understanding of “religion” in English-speaking countries comes from the “bind up” perspective. The dictionary definition, “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods,” makes that abundantly clear.

How different might all those definitional quotations above might be if the “caring”, rather than the “binding” aspect, were the general understanding of religion. And how sad that it is not. One is reminded of James’s admonition: “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.” (Jm 1:27 NRSV)

Next time I am asked “What is religion?” my answer will be “Religion is caring.”