Year B: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Gospel: Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
One of the characteristics of the Jewish Law was its emphasis on the rules concerning hygiene. In a hot country where the existence of bacteria and antibiotics was unknown, most of the rules were eminently sensible - not least that of washing one’s hands before eating.
The problem highlighted in today’s Gospel is not really the rule - but the use to which the rule is put: a person is judged by how well they conform to the rule rather than on the type of person they are. A simple and very sensible rule becomes a point of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were a group of Jews who held that observance of the Law was paramount. They believed that following its rules and tenets faithfully made a person righteous - that is, at rights with God. They had discerned that Jesus was a holy man but were perplexed by the fact that he did not apply the Law rigorously to Himself and to His disciples.
Their question about why Jesus and his disciples do not observe the practice of washing their hands is, therefore, fairly straightforward. It is, in fact, Jesus who puts the cat among the pigeons by calling them hypocrites and quoting Isaiah’s condemnation of those who honour God only with lip-service - seeming to denounce them and their religious practices.
Jesus had an uncanny knack of seeing through people. It may be that he knew this group of people - and knew that, although they seemed to be righteous Jews what went on in their hearts was completely different.
As Jesus himself said, he had not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. He had come to take people beyond external practices and lead them to a deeper understanding of what they meant for the inner person. It is perfectly possible to keep up a good image - but Jesus warns that this is not enough. What is required is purity within not just purity without. It is from inner prompting that evil actions come. There may be external temptations - but it is the evil dispositions within that cause a person to fall prey to them.
These are hard words which ring true for us as much as they did for the Pharisees - does our worship and observance come from the heart - or is it just “show”?
What does it mean for me?
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