Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Letter of James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-22
This may be rather far-fetched, but suppose you gave a big feast, rented a banquet room in a very fancy restaurant and all your invited guests just happened to work in a pig farm, tending hogs, mucking pens and generally getting themselves filthy dirty. Now suppose they all arrived at your party totally honored and delighted to be invited, but without having washed up in the least, so used to being dirty, and ready to dig in and eat without so much as washing their hands. It doesn’t sound like a very appetizing scenario. We’d probably be rather put off by such guests.
Jesus and his followers are chided today for being something like the hog tenders who don’t wash up according to accepted customs of cleanliness and etiquette. Jesus turns the tables on the accusing scribes and Pharisees, by telling them they are much worse off because they have unclean hearts. In other words, it’s better to go to table like the hog farmers, sincere and without judging, than going to table well-scrubbed, but with evil thoughts, pride, envy, slander and the like in the heart or on the lips.
Which is more important to God, Jesus asks: clean hands and body or a clean mind and heart? The scribes and Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples of breaking ritual traditions. Jesus deals with the matter by going to the heart of the problem: looking at what God desires, rather than humans.
God looks into the heart, Jesus says, while humans only sees what is external. What is the purpose of all the commandments, Jesus is indirectly asking? Is it not to free oneself to love more, be nearer to God and more available to serve God and others?
That doesn’t seem to be a preoccupation of the scribes and Pharisees, though. Jesus is unafraid to call these religious authorities hypocrites, literally people who wear masks, who are only acting. Like actors, they put on a show, making people think they are obeying God’s law, while in fact they are harboring evil desires and intentions.
Now who of us, we may ask, is completely free of such bias? Probably few or none of us, but we should recognize that acting (hypocrisy) is a problem, and seek to eradicate it in our life, by the help of God’s grace. Jesus is telling the scribes and Pharisees that they are not even aware of, let alone striving to change, their hypocritical ways.
Secondly, after telling them of their hypocrisy, Jesus says his accusers are abandoning God’s word and substituting their narrow interpretations for what God is actually asking for: a clean heart, free of malice, judging, covetousness, deceit, etc. Jesus refers them to a prophecy of Isaiah (chapter 29, verse 13), where the prophet accuses his hearers of paying God lip service, but with hearts a million miles away from their Maker.
There is only one way to reverse such trends, and that is to be open to God’s ways, walking in love and not judging others. Such a stance, which is also called openness to God’s grace, will gradually purify intentions, set one on fire for God’s ways, in the love of the Holy Spirit.
So we may ask: am I committed to eliminating from my life that which is not of God? Does the sacrifice I offer to God each day in prayer, ritual and good works flow from a willing heart, even if imperfect, but striving to have the right motives? Or am I preoccupied with myself self, judging others harshly, and really leaving no place for God to enter fully into my life? No one can answer that question for me, nor I for anyone else. It is very personal and individual, and we are being invited by God today to choose God’s ways above everything else.
The words of the first reading today, from the Book of Deuteronomy, are still true: “For what great nation has gods so close to it as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call upon him?” With this in mind, we need to acknowledge that only God can change our hearts and make them clean and whole, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Lord is always ready to bestow help, what we call grace, which assists us to choose what is good and reject what is evil. Saint James says it so well in the second reading for this Sunday: “Humbly welcome God’s word with its power to save you. Act on this word. If all you do is listen to it (and not act on it) you are deceiving yourselves.”
May God help us believe in the power of his love to transform our hearts. May our reception of the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood at the Eucharist (the Mass) be a joy and strengthen our resolve to choose to love what is good and hate what is evil.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB