Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27 MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The law, fulfilled in the gospel, is meant to form our hearts, to make us pure, able to live in the Lord’s presence. The law was given that we might live and enter into the inheritance promised to us — the kingdom of God, eternal life.
Israel, by its observance of the law, was meant to be an example to surrounding nations. As James tells us in today’s Epistle, the gospel was given to us that we might have new birth by the Word of truth. By living the Word we’ve received, we’re to be examples of God’s wisdom to those around us, the “first fruits” of a new humanity.
This means we must be “doers” of the Word, not merely hearers of it.
Many people in our increasingly secular society would gladly endorse the religious approach of the Pharisees and scribes in this Sunday’s Gospel. (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) Those Pharisees and scribes had made the careful observance of tradition and ritual the heart of their religion.
They were concerned with ritual washings and purification, in addition to being focused on the strict observance of the law of the Sabbath and the avoidance of all forbidden food.
The religion of the Pharisees and scribes was bound up with rules, rituals, and tradition.
Certainly those in our day who have little regard for religion have no problem with people of faith keeping such rituals and traditions provided they remain private, esoteric matters confined to their homes and worship places.
However, that approach was condemned by Jesus. For Jesus religion was not a matter of scrupulously keeping ritual law but rather a matter of living in a right relationship with God, with others, and with the created world.
We certainly see that in this Sunday’s Gospel. There Jesus is asked, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” Jesus replies by accusing his questioners of misplaced priorities, of paying more attention to their rituals than to the commandments of God centred on morality and correct human behaviour. ” It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so rightly prophesied … You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.”
Jesus’ concern was not adherence to external religious ritual. Jesus knew that what made a person unclean was not failing to wash one’s hands or eating the wrong food, but rather failing to live an upright life.
As he said, ” For it is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean.”
Saint James in Sunday’s Second Reading (James 1:17-16, 21-22, 27) makes that same point. ” 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.”
We live in a society that has no problem with people of faith, provided that, like the Pharisees and scribes they make their religion only a matter of rites and rituals.
But when people of faith advocate for what is just and right, when their values contradict the laissez-faire morality of our culture, when they dare to condemn certain actions as evil and defiling of human nature, then people of faith become an unwelcome threat.
We see an example of that in the reaction of some people to the statements of Pope Francis. When he speaks in general terms of doing good and avoiding evil, no one complains. But when Pope Francis gives concrete examples of the evil to be avoided, such as uncontrolled capitalism or excessive profits, and the good that should be done, such as welcoming the immigrant or confronting climate change, then there is no longer universal applause.
A Christianity that is nothing more that ritual and ceremony may be accepted by society, but it is not the religion of Jesus Christ.
Jesus came to challenge us to turn from sin and to live as children of God. He came to open our eyes to a new way of seeing life. He came to teach us values that contradict our culture. Jesus did not come to make sure we properly washed our hands!
“Listen to me,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel. Today, we’re called to examine our relationship to God’s law.
Is the practice of our religion a pure listening to Jesus, a humble welcoming of the Word planted in us and able to save our souls? Or are we only paying lip-service?