22d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Aug. 30, 2015
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Holy Cross, Fairfield
“The Pharisees with some scribes … observed that some of Jesus’ disciples ate their meals with unclean hands” (Mark 7: 1-2).
|The Pharisees questioning Jesus (James Tissot)|
The Pharisees have a really bad reputation, and the term has become a synonym for “hypocrite” (see Matt 23). In fact, they were “serious and devout believers [who] wanted to live their relationship with God in such a complete and continuous way that they would always be in a fit state to enter communion with him. They tried to live their whole lives as if they were in the temple,” and that required strict observance of all the laws of ritual purity.
The scribes were the scholars and teachers of the Law, the legal experts.
The ritual laws weren’t concerned with moral matters, e.g., the 10 Commandments, but matters like clean and unclean food; contact with blood or other body fluids; bodily sores of various kinds (“leprosy”); contact with Gentiles; contact with a corpse (fear of that is probably why the priest and the Levite pass by the man who has been left for dead on the road to Jericho in the parable of the Good Samaritan); details of Sabbath observance (how far you could walk, what constituted work); and—as in today’s gospel—washing.
Members of both groups come to Jesus, upset that he—a devout Jew and a teacher (rabbi) with a large following of disciples—apparently permits some of his followers to eat without washing properly. This is one of several contentious issues between these groups and Jesus; elsewhere, they object because he heals on the Sabbath, which they think is work; and his disciples have been caught grabbing some standing grain along the footpaths, shelling it, and eating it, which the scribes consider to be harvesting, and therefore work.
The rituals of cleanliness may well have had their roots in hygienic concerns. 1st-century life certainly was a lot dirtier than ours—no running water or sewage systems (except for the very wealthiest people), minimal making and using of soap (except for the rich), no knowledge of bacteria, no government inspection of food, most of the population living in houses built of stone, mud, and reeds with dirt floors, cooking done on open fires with insects buzzing around (kind of like camping, but done every day). So there was a lot to be said for using a little bit of water when you could get it—which in hot, dry Palestine might be easier said than done if you didn’t live right next to a river or lake.
Jesus picks up 2 issues in this debate. One issue he addresses to the Pharisees and scribes, the other to the entire crowd of people listening and to his disciples.
To the Pharisees and scribes, he says, “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition” (7:8). In 5 verses that our reading skips over (which you can look up in Mark at home if you wish), he provides specific examples. Jesus doesn’t object to observance of the Law, but he does object to some practices that effectively override the intention of the Law. In other disputations, he accuses his opponents of being so wrapped up in the minutest details of the Law that they miss the big picture, the really important stuff: like justice, fairness, in our dealings with people; like mercy and compassion; like awareness of one’s own sinfulness and need for conversion and better faithfulness to God and to people. Again, you can refer to the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the priest and the Levite preserve their ritual purity against possibly touching a corpse (they don’t know whether the man by the side of the road is still alive), but they omit love for their neighbor—the point Jesus was illustrating with the parable.
In our time we too have an issue of contrast between “God’s commandment” and “human tradition,” or, more specifically, human laws. In our lifetimes we’ve seen various practices and behaviors that 2 generations ago were unimaginable or at least universally abhorred have now been legalized, normalized, and made socially acceptable if not almost compulsory. We can name some obvious ones that pervade most of Western culture: extramarital sex, surrogate motherhood, divorce, contraception, abortion, homosexual relationships. In our country and some others we could add easy recourse to capital punishment and (sometimes) too easy disregard for just war criteria. If we’re listening to Jesus, we have to think about the divine law—whether that’s revealed in the Bible (like what Jesus says about divorce) or discovered in the very nature of things (like human sexuality)—and we have to take the divine law as the guide of our attitudes and behavior, regardless of what Congress, the Supreme Court, the state legislature, the universities, the mass media, or any other human institution may tell us we ought to be thinking and doing.
Well does St. James tell us in today’s 2d reading to “welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls” (1:21), which of course means the Word of God. Jesus in his person and teaching is the living Word of God, and the Scriptures are the written Word. Then James tells us “to keep [ourselves] unstained by the world” (1:27), i.e., by the unclean, immoral practices of the culture around us.
To the crowd and to his disciples, Jesus puts another question: what does “clean” really mean? He answers that it doesn’t really mean what you might pick up from the food you eat, the utensils you use, or the dirt under your fingernails: “Nothing that enters a person from outside can defile him; but the things that come out from within are what defile” (7:15). You may remember that among the Beatitudes that Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount is “Blessed are clean of heart, for they will see God” (Matt 5:8). From the cleanliness of one’s heart—one’s attitudes, one’s desires, one’s integrity—comes the practice of virtue. James identifies “pure and undefiled religion” not with ritual washings but with compassion for widows and orphans (1:27)—the most vulnerable members of society.
Negatively, in today’s gospel Jesus lists unclean thoughts and desires that come out of us in sinful behavior (Mark 5:21-22). Unchaste thoughts and desires lead to unchaste behavior. Envy or jealousy leads to theft or gossip and slander. Arrogance leads to harsh and impatient treatment of others. Et cetera. Hence it’s important for us who try to follow Jesus to guard our hearts carefully, to be wary of what we expose ourselves to, wary of what we allow to stay in our minds and attitudes.
All of us experience temptations, of course, temptations to the very things that Jesus lists (and to more, I’m sure). The mere entrance of a thought into our heads—a jealous thought, an angry thought, an impure thought, a thought to lie—doesn’t constitute sin. What do we do with the thought, with the temptation? Do we mull it over, savor it, consider acting on it? Then we’re getting into sinful territory: from within people come all the evils that Jesus lists—“and they defile,” make us unclean and unqualified to see God.
Since we’re all susceptible to temptation and need cleaner hearts, we pray in today’s Collect that God, who is the “giver of every good gift,” “put into our hearts the love of [his] name” and a deeper “sense of reverence” for him. In Scriptural language, the “name” means the person. We pray that he plant a deep reverence in our hearts for his Person—and all that follows from reverencing God—and then that he “may nurture in us what is good … and keep safe what [he] has nurtured.” That is, we pray that God deepen in us reverence for him, cultivate in us that reverence, keep it safe in our hearts. Unspoken is the prayer that we will then speak and act reverently from the goodness, inspired and fostered by God, that lies in our hearts.
May it be so.
 “Pure, unspoilt religion,” Salesians Ireland Sunday lectio divina for Aug. 30, 2015, http://www.salesiansireland.ie/sundayreflection/prayer/22nd-sunday-in-ordinary-time-30th-august-2015/
 Before writing my homily I hadn’t seen this item about this gospel passage in the National Catholic Register (on-line Aug. 30, print edition Aug. 23: http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/is-jesus-talking-about-america/