“Moses said to YHWH, “But, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence,
either before or since you have spoken to your servant.” Ex 4:10
Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B:
The Way of the Heart - Not Washing Up.
I have a friend who has suffered each winter for many years from what is called "seasonal affected disorder or sadness" (SAD). At the end of August he looks forward to the long summer months ahead and he is once again a happy man. All of us are leaving behind the flu season which leads us to regularly washing our hands thoroughly and using hand sanitisers to prevent our getting sick. Many churches even ask those giving out communion to use a hand sanitiser before they distribute holy communion. Since childhood I was told to, “Wash your hands before you come to the table.” It makes perfect sense to wash our hands before eating and more frequently during the flu season. So, what’s all the fuss about “unclean” and “unwashed hands in Mark's gospel (7: 1-8,14-15, 21-23) set for this weekend? Is it possible that Jesus and his disciples were not concerned about personal cleanliness and hygiene? A careful reading shows us this is not the case.
Mark's Gospel (sometimes called St Peter's Gospel) is possibly writing for a non-Jewish audience in Rome with no deep knowledge of Jewish rituals for hand washing. The Old Testament did not require hand washing before meals. The washing purification rituals were part of the oral tradition passed down by the rabbis upon return their from the great exile in Babylon. It was a matter of ceremonial cleanliness, mostly promoted by the Pharisees, who tried to tie temple customs with daily life. There is a lesson in what the Pharisees were teaching that there is a place for religious practices in daily life. This is what we do when we placed crucifixes or images of the Saints in our homes or work places? They are reminders of the presence of the sacred in our daily lives. I can remember the fervour of my childhood rituals of lighting candles to say my night prayers before the plastic statue of the sacred heart that could glow in the night. I felt really holy because I did my ritual - sometimes with attention and other times just out of mindless habit. So often I was such a little Pharisee, judging others as unholy and canonising myself as a saint because of my external acts and rituals of religious piety. My little Pharisee in the making got more out of it than God.
“The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus ....” Can you feel the tension? These officials have come from the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem. The crowd around Jesus would have seen and probably overheard what these officials from Jerusalem were saying to Jesus. They came to challenge Jesus about “the tradition of the elders.” They thought Jesus was violating the body of unwritten laws which was made up of 613 precepts they believed truly religious and pious people should observe. Why did Jesus respond so strongly to the Pharisees? Maybe because they seemed to be setting themselves up as paragons of holiness and virtue. Jesus was not rejecting the religious customs they practiced as much as their intention to attack him. So, he calls them "hypocrites". As a child I knew people (especially in my family) who were not catholic and who had no prayer rituals and never went to church and because of that I judged them. Thank God, I have grown up from my childish primary school judgemental pharisaic state of mind to know that God sees all of us and judges the heart and intentions behind all that we do in our faith traditions.
The Pharisees claimed to be devout, even more so than their contemporaries, however Jesus tells them they “disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” The Bible doesn’t spell out how to wash hands, food utensils before eating, but it is very explicit about loving God by loving neighbour, caring for widows and orphans and giving to the poor. Jesus tells the crowd it is not food which passes through the
body but behaviour that defiles us. Jesus knows or suspects that the Pharisees may have been accusing his disciples of ritual violations, but that was just an excuse to attack him. His response to the Pharisees is a prophetic one. He uses the prophet Isaiah to condemn superficial observance of religious practices of those who failed in their commitment to God. He supports his argument by pointing to what Isaiah condemns, “these people honour me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.” It’s not what’s external that renders a person “unclean.” It’s what is in the depths of a person’s heart. Jesus reminds us that in our hearts reside jealousy, revenge, hatred, lust, oppression and from the heart come acts that humans inflict on one another.
The history of the world and of the church is a testimony to the destructive legacy of those who have held onto beliefs with unbending tenacity. These rigid believers life the Pharisee's in the gospel become unattractive representatives for their cause by alienating themselves from anyone who differs from them. Their fanaticism in reality is meaningful only to themselves. The Apostle Paul faced the same restrictive fanaticism as he took the Jesus faith out into the Gentile world. His true-believing Jewish converts, insisted that the only way Gentiles could become Christians would be for them to take on all the Jewish customs.
Our Church history is littered with the results of what we have done to preserve " .. human regulations." The well known Christian hymn "Now Thank We All Our God" was written by Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) in Germany. His walled city received hundreds of refugees into its safety. However, the safe city became subject to the plague because of overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions. Rinkart sometimes buried forty to fifty plague victims a day. But under such terrible conditions, Rinkart held to a vibrant faith in Christ. The scandalous part of the story is that the war which so affected his life and the lives of so many others was fought between Roman Catholic and Protestant true believers. It is horrible to think that fanatical true-faith-believing Christians would cause such unspeakable violence to one another in the name of human traditions!
How easy it is for us as believers to slip into thinking and behaving like the Pharisees who confronted Jesus. Jesus calls us to our interior and exterior religious observance in a spirit of humility. To help us to remain humble we begin each liturgy by asking for mercy for 'what we have done and what we had failed to do'. This gives us an opportunity to address our ego-led intentions behind our external deeds. Each of us desires to have a clean heart before God and that is what we can receive when we ask for mercy. In the reading from James (1:17-18, 21b-22, 27), we are reminded of the source of our good “Every good gift, every perfect gift comes from above….” We can examine our conscience as we go to the liturgy guided by this reading. James tells us we will be “pure and undefiled before God” if we “care for orphans and widows in their affliction.” This is the kind of practical religious observance we try to bring to our worship every time we gather for the Eucharist.