Tuesday of Week 5 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Mark 7:1-13

A group of self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees come to Galilee from Jerusalem to observe Jesus. Obviously, word has reached Jerusalem about what Jesus has been doing up in Galilee. They immediately notice that Jesus and his disciples do not observe some of the “traditions of the elders”, especially with regard to the washing of hands before eating. These traditions were a body of highly detailed, but unwritten human laws, which the Scribes and Pharisees regarded as having the same binding force as the Law of Moses. Paul admits to having been a fanatical upholder of these traditions (see Gal 1:14).

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that many of these observances were originally based on practical experience. Eating without washing one’s hands could be a source of sickness, although they knew nothing about germs or bacteria. Because sometimes it could be diseased, eating pork made some people seriously sick, so the meat was banned altogether. But in order to ensure these hygienic requirements would be observed, they were linked to a religious sanction. Violating them was not just bad for your health, but a violation of God’s will. To ignore them was to disobey God.

Clearly Jesus was not against the washing of hands as such, even as a religious observance. What he was against was the legalism by which the mere observance of some external actions was equated with being a devout lover of God. He 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.
(Is 29:13)

The real commandments of God, like unconditional love of the neighbour, are neglected in favour of what are purely human traditions. Jesus illustrates the hypocrisy involved by showing how some supposedly devout people got around the basic responsibility of respect for parents (which the Mosaic law demanded) by claiming that they had consecrated all they owned to God and the temple, while in fact keeping it for their own use. The Corban (or Qorban) was a way of supposedly making a gift to God by an offering to the Temple, but in such a way that the donor could continue to use it for himself and not give it to others, even needy parents. This is like the story about the pastor who said, “Each week I throw all the collection up in the air for God. What stays up, he keeps; the rest comes to me”.

We sometimes meet Catholics who confuse the essential service of God with some religious rule. They judge people by whether they eat fish on Friday or not. They piously go through all kinds of devotional exercises, but their conversation is full of gossip and destructive criticism of others.

Others get tied down by scruples: “Did I say my penance after Confession?” when the more important question would be, “Did I change my behaviour?” or “How did I keep my promise not to repeat the same sins?” They ask: “Did I observe the full hour of fasting before communion?” when the more important issue would be, “Does my going to communion bring me closer to God and make me a more loving person with others?”

There can be a bit of the Pharisee in all of us, and that is the real subject of the teaching today. We will be judged by the depth of our love and nothing else.

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