Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 7: 1-8, 14,15, 21-23
August 29, 2021
“The heart of the matter”
It is clear that the Pharisees and Scribes are determined to ‘wrong-foot’ Jesus and his disciples. These official religious leaders, who have just returned from Jerusalem (having fulfilled their religious duties we presume), condemn ‘some of the disciples’ for not washing their hands before eating! The importance of washing your dirty hands before eating was ingrained in us by our mothers: ‘Have you washed your hands?’ was repeated almost daily to our annoyance as children. We usually complied. However we did not see this practice as conforming to God’s law, but we were beginning to understand that to obey our parents was. (Mk 7:10-13)
The criticism vocalized by the Pharisees and the Scribes is not merely about ensuring that people have clean hands before eating, it is about ‘observing the tradition of the elders’. The latter, a ‘human tradition’, has become ‘the law of God’ in the hearts and minds of the legalistic Jews who have imposed the rule on all! What was a sensible practice of basic hygiene is now a Divine Prohibition: ‘Thou shalt not eat without washing your hands’!
The Pharisees and Scribes ask Jesus why his followers do not wash their hands. His response is dramatic and ‘cuts to the quick’! Jesus applies the prophet Isaiah’s judgement directly to them: ‘you hypocrites…You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ Jesus humiliates the Jewish leaders in public by revealing their double standards and then applies their own familiar key scriptures to their words and actions: ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’. Instead of embarrassing and discrediting Jesus and his followers as they planned, the tables are turned on the religious professionals!
Jesus uses the opportunity to address the ordinary people who have been privy to the humiliation of those who usually interpret God’s Law. Jesus speaks with authority when he condemns the religious leaders for ‘teaching human precepts as doctrines’. He confirms that what comes from the heart is more important than mere words. Rituals alone are not enough. Although Jesus doesn’t actually tell the crowd to reject the legalism of the Pharisees and Scribes, his words deny their authoritative interpretation of how to be faithful to God’s Law. External prescriptive practices imposed by ‘the elders’, such as the many rituals of ‘cleanliness’, will not purify the human heart.
The ‘taking of food with or without clean hands’ appears to be the obvious issue but Jesus goes to the heart of the matter when he quotes Isaiah: ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’. Our intentions lie in our innermost hearts and this is what matters more than anything else. Evil intentions come from within, not from without. This is about taking personal responsibility for our thoughts and actions. Blaming externals for our wickedness is false. Empty words of ritual alone are no use. Unless the whole person worships God wholeheartedly in word and action, all is in vain.
In Mk 7:15 ‘Listen to me, all you who understand’ and ‘If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear’ (Mk 7:16) are expressions often used in the Gospels to indicate that what is stated is a ‘hard saying’. We might say ‘take it or leave it’. Jesus’s listeners would have been shocked. The Pharisees and Scribes would have been angry that their authority has been challenged by Jesus. Many of the crowd would have been surprised at the way Jesus speaks and with authority.
Afterwards, leaving the critics and the crowd, Jesus speaks to his disciples alone and spells out (Mk7: 17-23) that what enters through the stomach is not what makes a person act with good intention. All food is clean and in no way makes a person act rightly or wrongly. It is out of people’s hearts, that is, their innermost intentions, that good or evil come.
Reflection: Covid-19 restrictions have made us more aware of the need for shared rituals that protect everyone from harm. Some of the Pharisaic rituals began as basic community health customs. But instead of being about the love and care of people, they became burdens.
1) How do we keep a balance between ‘shared heartfelt customs’ that are life-giving and ‘fossilized practices’ that can tend to stunt personal growth?
2) ‘Hypocrisy’ is something that we dislike, especially in others. Is there ever a mismatch between my words and my actions, consciously or unconsciously?
3) Take time to ‘acknowledge that the ‘Goodness of God’, expressed in word and action, is the ‘heart of the matter’ for us as Sisters of Notre Dame.’
Prayer: Lord, all goodness comes from you.
You know my innermost heart.
May I try each day to live ‘thankfully’,
allowing your goodness to flow through me.
Free me from putting law before love. Amen
Mark 7: 1-8, 14,15, 21-23
When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. – For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. — So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.
“From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
The Gospel of the Lord