Homily for the
22d Sunday of Ordinary TimeAug. 30, 2009
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Christian Brothers, Iona College
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7: 6).
After our long meditation upon John 6 and the bread of life, we return to St. Mark. To refresh our memories: Jesus has sent the apostles out on mission, and they’ve returned to him. In the meantime, Herod has killed John the Baptist (yesterday’s liturgical memorial, incidentally). Jesus has taken the 12 aside for some rest and reflection, only to be pursued by the crowds, whom he has then fed miraculously.
Now Jesus re-enters the public arena, so to speak. As the state authorities have opposed the word of God—Herod vs. John the Baptist—so do the temple authorities oppose it: “When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of the disciples ate their meals with unclean…hands. So they questioned him…” (7:1-2,5).
It’s not that washing one’s hands before meals is a bad idea. The Centers for Disease Control and other public authorities are encouraging us to do lots of hand-washing. Nor is it that careful observance of all the commandments of the Lord is a bad idea; God explicitly commands it, as we heard in the 1st reading (Deut 4:1-2,6-8).
Rather, the issue is that the religion of Jesus’ critics is focused on externals: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Their hands may be clean; their cups and dishes may be clean; but their hearts, their souls—that’s another question altogether. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God…is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 [2d reading]). Elsewhere Jesus faults the Pharisees for their greed and love of money (Luke 16:14-15), faults the rich for making a show of their contributions to the Temple (Luke 21:1-4), damns the rich for ignoring the poor at their doorstep (Luke 16:19-31). The religious leaders of Israel who were concerned about their social and political status, who resented Jesus’ assault on their financial arrangements in the Temple (Mark 11:15-18), persecuted Jesus and finally handed him over to the Romans for execution. In one of his best known parables (15:11-32), Jesus presents the pathetic figure of a son who meticulously obeys every command of his father—the parable is aimed at the Pharisees and scribes (Luke 15:1-3)—but whose obedience is empty and loveless and whose place at the heavenly banquet is left open to question.
“Pure and undefiled religion before God” has its external practices, to be sure: simplicity of life, lack of ambition for wealth and power (“unstained by the world”), care for the poor, the sick, the foreigner, the widow. But such external practices flow from hearts “pure and undefiled,” from hearts “close to the Lord our God” (cf. Deut 4:7). Real uncleanness isn’t an unwashed cup or unwashed hands but hearts full of “evil thoughts,” full of the capital sins (Mark 7:21-23).
Our self-examination at the start of each Mass, at the end of the day, and the sacrament of Reconciliation includes specific external behaviors. It also needs to look at our hearts, at the thoughts and motives (cf. Heb 4:12) for what we do and say. Some of our thoughts and motives need purification, and some are “pure and undefiled before God.”
Hence our Opening Prayer today included a prayer that our hearts be filled with love for God (1st form), with desires to please God (alternate form). The Responsorial Psalm sanctifies the person “who thinks the truth in his heart” (15:2), who therefore demonstrates external piety by respecting the reputations, lives, and property of others (15:3-5). St. Paul advises the Christians of Philippi to concentrate their thoughts on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise” (4:8).
May the Lord “fill our minds with insight into love, so that every thought may grow in wisdom, and all our efforts be filled with [his] peace” (Collect).