Moses said to the people: "Now, Israel, hear the statues and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. In your observance of the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, "This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people." For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?"(P) The word of the Lord.
Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice; we think the truth in his heart and slanders not with his tongue. (R)
Who harms not his fellow man, nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor; by whom the reprobate is despised, while he honors those who fear the Lord. (R)
Who lends not his money at usury and accepts no bribe against the innocent. Whoever does these things shall never be disturbed. (R)
Dearest brothers and sisters: All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.
Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.
Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.(P) The word of the Lord.
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 are 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."(P) The Gospel of the Lord.
We are studying the gospel of Mark for our reflection in this Liturgical Year B. However, for five weeks, from the seventeenth to twenty first Sunday, we read chapter six of the gospel of John in which Jesus reveals Himself as the bread of life. Today, we resume the study of the gospel of Mark from the seventh chapter. While Jesus was really busy preaching, teaching and healing throughout Galilee, some Jews, particularly the Pharisees and scribes, were constantly watching Jesus, hoping to find some fault with Him or some reason to discredit Him. One such instance is today's gospel story.
Mark writes that some Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem once found Jesus' disciples eating without washing their hands and asked Jesus why his disciples failed to observe the tradition of the elders, Mark (7:2).
We must note three things here:
To better understand the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes, we need a quick review of the cultural context and purity laws of the Jews at the time of Jesus. The tradition of the washing of hands dates back to the time of Moses, when Temple priests, before performing any ritual, were required to wash their hands, and make themselves pure and ready to offer a sacrifice, Exodus (30:17-21). But then, the Pharisees gradually inserted this ritual washing into the routines of daily life and wanted all Jewish people to observe it. Some of the key times to wash the hands include: before prayer, when leaving a cemetery, after using latrine or bathroom, prior to going up to bless people, before eating and so on.
But the most important of these washings is the washing of hands before eating or handling any food. Even today, orthodox and traditional Jews look upon the washing prior to eating with such rigidity, that those who wilfully neglect its practice are said to make themselves liable to excommunication. However, the mere fact that only "some" of Jesus' disciples did not wash their hands before eating tells us that not all Jews at the time of Jesus followed the same practice. However, Mark writes that "all Jews" were keeping the tradition of washing their hands carefully before they ate; purifying themselves after their return from marketplaces; and cleansing cooking utensils and beds.
Now, Jesus knew that the question that the Pharisees had posed to him was simply implied accusation and criticism. They did not simply ask Jesus why His disciples did not wash their hands before eating or how He regarded the practice of handwashing. Rather, they accused his disciples of breaking the tradition of the elders. They claimed that all the traditions, passed down through successive generations, are oral laws and that they have authority equal to the written Law of Moses, which came from God.
Effectively, then, they were saying that his disciples violated not just a human tradition but a tradition of divine origin, a command of God. Jesus responded by strongly denouncing them. He quoted the Prophet Isaiah in reference to such people, saying, "Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites. This people honours 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", Isaiah (29:13).
By saying that Isaiah was right when He had prophesied about the religious leaders and teachers of the Law, Jesus was saying that the prophet's words apply just as much as to Jesus' contemporaries as they did to the people of Isaiah's time, eight hundred years earlier. What had happened among God's people in Isaiah's day was now happening again during Jesus' ministry. They were hypocrites who were only merely honouring God with their lips while their hearts were far from Him. Their worship was vain, fruitless and futile. They were strictly enforcing the legalistic traditions but were neglecting God's teachings on understanding, compassion, mercy, tolerance, gentleness, justice, faithfulness, patience, forgiveness, and love.
And then Jesus turned to all who had gathered around him and said, "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, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile", Mark (7:21-23).
In other words, Jesus was saying that whatever their practice, whichever traditions they did or did not uphold, they were not the things that, by themselves, would make them belong to God's kingdom or inherit eternal life or obtain peace and joy. He reminded them that unlike food that simply passes through one's system, that which is produced in the heart affects the whole person. "For it is from within, from the heart, that evil intentions come", Mark (7:21a). That is to say, the heart is the centre of human will and rationality. The heart is the place from which all kinds of intentions arise.
Finally, Jesus concluded the teaching with a list of things capable of making a person impure or corrupting a person's heart. Some, like theft, murder and adultery are actions, and others, like greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance and folly, are character traits and attitudes. All come, Jesus said, from disordered or corrupted hearts. Defilement dwells deep within. The source of defilement is more internal than external. It's more about who a person is than about the food or filth a person avoids.
What is the message for us?
Jesus neither rejected nor denied the validity of either the Law of Moses in general or its individual commandments; nor denounced worship practices; nor did He say that they are unimportant. He only rebuked the people for their failure to uphold it or their distortion of tradition in order to circumvent the law and engage in empty worship practices. Some people, when using such texts to discourage people who are engaged in rituals and devotions, are dismissing all outward religious practices and traditions as "vain worship", "meaningless" or "a waste of time". For them, Scripture alone is sufficient for our faith in Jesus. But Christ's words in the gospel today teach us that both the Scriptures and Traditions are important to our faith in Him.
We, Catholic Christians, have inherited lots of religious customs, ritual signs and practices. They are ceremonies and sacraments, such as, baptism, the Eucharist, prayers for the sick, Holy Orders, marriage, confirmation, confession or penance; daily practices such as prayers at table, bedside and other times; observances such as regular church attendance, fasting, giving to charity, novenas, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; sacramentals such as rosary beads, holy images, statues, pictures, holy water, incense, candles; gestures and postures, such as making the sign of the cross with holy water upon entering the church, standing, kneeling, sitting, bowing during prayers or Mass, etc.
All these are so meaningful and help us express our faith in God and worship God. However, we must, as Jesus says, "worship Him in spirit and truth", John (4:24). That means, our worship must be reverential and wholehearted - Ephesians (5:18), not dull and half-hearted, internal - Psalm (103:1), not external, simple - 2 Corinthians (11:2-4), not ritualistic, real and sincere, not fake - Matthew (15:25), serious - Psalm (2:10-12) not flippant, humbling - Micah (6:8) not boastful, clean - Psalm (29:2), and thankful - Psalm (100). Because certain religious practices have become so much a part of our lives that they become just habits with no meaning attached to them.
During the Mass, we can stand, kneel and bow to express our reverence, honor, humility and obedience to God and still not really show our reverence and honor internally; we can sit to listen and meditate on the Word God and still cling to worldly thoughts and feelings. We can pray standing up or sitting down or kneeling and still never really pray. Upon entering the church, we can dip a finger in holy water and do the sign of the cross to remind ourselves of our own baptism and to free ourselves from uncleanness and still have sin in our heart.
We can sing every song in the book to praise and thank God and still not really giving our thanks and praises to Him. We can read and hear the Word of God and still not know God. We can worship in beautiful churches all our life and never really experience the holy ground. We can receive the Body and Blood of Christ every time and still never believe in the presence of God in the Eucharist or commune with God.
However, today's gospel is a reminder that in the event of someone breaking a tradition or doctrine, the teaching of God to show mercy, love, compassion, understanding and forgiveness takes precedence over all traditions and practices, for God is more concerned with who we are on the inside than our outward ceremonial gestures.
God Bless You!