Sunday of Week 22 of Ordinary Time (Year B)

Commentary on Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; James 1:17-18,21-22,27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

After five weeks of reflecting on the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel and the theme of Jesus as the Bread of Life, we return today to continuing our readings from Mark’s Gospel. The theme of today’s readings is the nature of true religion.

The Law of Moses was very important for the people of Israel. They were rightly proud of the legal system they had developed in their desire to be God’s people. Moses asks the Israelites in the First Reading:

…what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

Through the Law they were expected to lead lives which were different, better than their ‘pagan’ neighbours. There was, then, great emphasis on the observance of the Law as a sign of commitment and obedience to God. But, by the time of Jesus, the law had become so hopelessly complicated in its applications that only experts could interpret it in the many practical problems which would arise during daily life.

An end in itself
Another problem had arisen by Jesus’ time. The law was no longer a guideline helping people on their way to loving and serving God. Observing the law had become an end in itself. The emphasis was not on building a relationship with God and one’s fellow human beings, but on checking out one’s own external behaviour.

Sometimes our confessions can be like that. Many of the ‘sins’ we confess are often phrased as personal failures (I lost my temper, I was impatient, I was lazy, I was uncharitable) with very little reference to how I related with other people or how my actions (or, even more, my non-actions) caused them hurt.

As Jesus indicates in today’s Gospel, many of the Old Testament laws were of human invention. They had little to do with loving God, but rather of conforming to social demands. On the one hand, they helped those in authority keep control, on the other, people knew where they stood. If they externally observed the Law, they were ‘good’.

As in our time we might say: “He’s a good Catholic; he’s always at church on Sunday.” There is no mention of what he does in church, what he thinks, or what he feels, or how he relates to the people around him during and especially after Mass. The important thing, in a way the only thing that matters, is that he is physically there.

Why no washing of hands?
The problem is presented in the Gospel today by a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. They challenge him:

Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?

The question really reflects tensions in the early Christian community of Mark where some of the new Christians were Jews and some were Gentiles. The Gentiles did not follow Jewish customs and the Jewish Christians were upset.

The purpose of today’s Gospel then is to put these Jewish customs in proper perspective. Washing hands before eating is a very sensible precaution. How often as children were we told: “Don’t come to the table until you have washed your hands!”? There were many prescriptions in Jewish law which seem to be primarily hygienic in origin, e.g. the distinction between foods that were ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’. Experience had shown that certain foods could be dangerous to eat, and eating with dirty hands could be a source of disease or sickness. By attaching a religious sanction to recommended behaviour, observation was more likely.

Jesus is not criticising such precautions. What he is criticising is the disproportionate importance given to these things to the neglect of what is far more important, the love of God and the care for one’s fellow human beings. It was this sense of deep compassion that made Francis of Assisi throw caution to the winds and kiss the leper he met on the road.

So Jesus today quotes from the prophet Isaiah:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.

He admonishes them:

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.

These words seem directed not against the Pharisees as such, but against rigidly doctrinaire Jewish members of the Christian community, and against similar people among our own communities today.

Much of such enslavement to culture and tradition is a major source of conflict in our world today—between communities and within families. Such fundamentalism is a source of terrible hatred and violence in many countries and the complete negation of true religion. We need to be very much aware of it in our own multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. (And few societies today do not have an ethnic, cultural and religious mix.) With all our high-tech, people today have changed very little from those of Jesus’ time.

Uncleanness on the inside
Jesus then speaks of the source of real uncleanness. The source of uncleanness is not any food or drink that comes from outside. Real uncleanness is in the heart. A person does not become ‘unclean’ by eating pork or by coming in contact with blood, still less by not washing hands before eating. He says:

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, folly.

All these are in direct conflict with a genuinely loving relationship with God and people. Washing hands does nothing to change that.

Today we begin reading from the Letter of James and will continue doing so for the next few Sundays. In today’s reading the writer speaks of the real source of law:

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…

Jesus, as the Word of God, is the bearer of all this goodness and perfection. So James exhorts us to:

…rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls…be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

And, in striking contrast to what the Pharisees and scribes were saying to Jesus, James continues:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world [that is, from the spirit of the “world”].

In other words, religion has little to do with the observance of laws. It has more to do with being liberated from the corrupting influences of our environment, and being sensitive to the needs of the weakest and most marginalised among us. And this is true religion because “as often as you did/did not do it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters you did/did not do it to me“.

Attractiveness of law
There is a strong attraction for some to have a religion of laws and regulations. The question on their lips is often: “Is this a sin?” “Is it a mortal sin or ‘only’ a venial sin?” The main concern of such people is to know what they can get away with, and to be free from feelings of guilt.

But these are not the questions to ask. Our real concern should be: “Is this a loving thing to do?” There may or may not be any commandment or regulation about it, but if it is not a word or an act of love, then it is not Christian, it is not truly a human act and it is not a moral act.

It is possible to keep all the laws and rules perfectly (as pharisees of all kinds do) and yet be very far from the spirit of Jesus and the Gospel. The law-keeper is primarily concerned with “saving his soul”, with “being in the state of grace” (whatever that means!). Even when she or he shows ‘charity’ to others it is often simply to get ‘merit’ for herself or himself.

Obviously in our Church and in our parish and wherever people have to work together, we have to have rules. But they are only means to help us work together more smoothly. Once the rules start dictating to us then we are in trouble. There is a lot of truth in the statement, “Rules are made to be broken.”

Laws are meant not to restrict, but to maximise the freedom of individuals and groups without detriment to others. We often curse the traffic lights when they turn red against us, but we curse even more when they break down because of the chaos that ensues.

Vision, not laws
In the final analysis, each one has to discern for themselves just how, in given circumstances, they can best love and serve Christ. It calls for a great deal of honesty, integrity and a high level of real freedom—the freedom to choose what is good, what is better, what is more loving. The Gospel is not a code of laws. It provides a vision of a truly human life lived for God among other people. It is focused on relationships rather than individual actions.

This very day we will have many opportunities to love and serve Jesus in various situations. Instead of being anxious what I may do wrong (“Is it a sin?”), ask rather, “Where and how can I be a more loving, caring and compassionate person this day?”

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