22nd Sunday Ordinary Time
Mark 7: 1-23. James 1: 17-27
Dcn Tony van Vuuren
That short phrase from the Letter of James seems to sum up all our readings today;
In Judaism, at the time of Jesus, there was only one body of law which was enforced by the religious authorities, based in Jerusalem the centre of the Jewish faith.
The opening words of the Gospel indicate this; “the Pharisees and scribes had come down from Jerusalem”; telling us that they came from Jerusalem reinforces the fact that this group of Pharisees were a sort of religious police. They had come to build a case against Jesus. Even the fact that they do not openly criticise him, but instead direct their focus on the behaviour of his Disciples is an indication that their purposes are evil. The implication of their enquiry being that if the Disciples offend it becomes the responsibility of their Master; and if Jesus were truly the Messiah then, according to the Pharisees, his disciples should surely be most scrupulous in observing all the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law; handed down as the Law of Moses.
These laws, the Ten Commandments, are God’s wise injunctions for the good ordering of society; they are given to us to help us live in harmony with one another.
However, as time passed these basic laws had been built on until, by the time of Jesus, there were 613 individual laws which the Jews were expected to follow.
The law had become oppressive and was being used by the Pharisees and others to keep themselves in a position of power over the people. They always come across as the “heavies” in the Gospel. But let’s give the Pharisees their due. They seem to be sincere in the questions they pose to Jesus today about ritual purity.
The Pharisees wanted people to observe these practices for good reason, as demonstrations of fidelity to God and as a sign of membership in the Jewish community. The surrounding non-Jewish world was very alluring to even faithful Jews. It had its easier ways and the gods of other religions didn’t require the same daily allegiance and holy path the God of the Jews did. What helped the Jews’ keep faithful to God were deliberate and constant reminders in their daily lives, such as the ritual washings. By observing them and other daily rituals, they would be expressing their religious commitment, and were reminded that they had a specific religious identity; they were members of the chosen people.
So using this cover the Pharisees question Jesus, a religious teacher, as to why His Disciples didn’t practice the observances that other teachers required. Jesus turns on them and tells them that they are hypocrites’; “they honour God with their lips, but their heart is far from God”.
“If you want to discuss true observance and holiness”, Jesus says, “then let’s talk about sincere religious observance that reflects the holiness of a heart turned to God and actions that show love of neighbour”.
Jesus wasn’t critical of all the Pharisees; he too loved the Law and God’s covenant expressed in the Law. But Jesus wanted to lead people to the heart of the Law, the relationship it could foster with God. He wasn’t concerned with the minor rituals, the scrupulous observance of the externals that had no meaning for the ordinary Jew. Instead he wanted, as Moses did, to show how to follow God, not in superficial ways, but in the deepest parts of our hearts, where we love and make our commitments.
We should be thinking and working out of a heart fully loyal to God, turned away from evil ways and prepared for service in His name. He wants a change of heart in us, a new and purified heart.
Where is our heart? Where do we find it residing today? Those who follow Jesus and accept his ways reside in the very heart of God.
If a person’s heart is in God and with God, one’s acts will be pure, whether or not one attends to proper ritual washing. Jesus’ teachings and manner of life showed that for him, holiness had nothing to do with superficial rituals; so no wonder the Pharisees felt threatened by Him. Jesus wants a heart turned towards God and, if that happens, a person will reflect holiness—that before God, they are clean.
So how do Jesus’ words make us feel today sitting in our pews and standing up here on the altar? Just because we are at church doing the proper thing, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get our hearts checked out.
If our hearts can be purified, the prayer and behaviour that flow from them will be exactly what God has in mind for us. If we act out of the intentions of good hearts we will know how to behave, even if we don’t know the exact rule for this or that situation.
Jesus calls the folk together again and gives them a very graphic list of 12 behaviours that flow from hearts that are “defiled.” (You might want to refresh your memory by rereading the Gospel)
This is a very thorough list and it would have been a useful guide to the early community for whom Mark was writing; as it should still be for us today!
The Gospel challenges us to look to our heart where our true identity lies. Some of us practice exquisite etiquette and proper speech, but in our hearts a good number of Jesus’ list of vices has taken root. Whatever the situation; it’s not just that we deceive others, but we are deceiving ourselves as well. We need to develop our consciences according to the spirit of Jesus; to find ways to name the evils that reside in our heart under the guise of self-interest, family values, patriotism, and, according to today’s gospel, religious practices.
Jesus puts priority on human relationships and that’s where we need to turn to law and tradition; to lists of vices and virtues, to guide us how to live together as family and in community. He isn’t teaching us to disregard human laws and traditions. Instead, his focus is less on the external rules and more on internal realities.
The Letter of James guides us in determining if our religion is true and our hearts are clean. The standard is how we treat the needy. He writes:”Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this; coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.”
That’s the kind of heart we wish to bring before God at this Eucharist, hearts longing to be made pure by the Word we have heard, and the heart-renewing food we are about to eat.