Twenty Second Sunday Aug 30, 2009
Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; James 1:17-18,21-22,27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
The theme of today’s readings is the nature of true religion. Generally in a human society the laws are a necessary component. Thus Moses exhorts his people to obey God’s statutes and ordinances. James challenges the community to be the doers and not merely hearers of the word of God. St Mark in today’s Gospel shows what happens when the letter of the law is slavishly followed. The scribes and Pharisees criticize the disciples for their failure to observe the laws about washing of their hands. Elsewhere Jesus himself is challenged for breaking the rules, healing on the Sabbath day and also permitting his disciples to break the Sabbath. In fact it is the breaking the laws that led him to his cross. Here in the Gospel Jesus reminds us that what is important is not the norms and rules but what is inside a person’s heart. We as Christians should understand that the road to Discipleship is never a straight path which could be obtained by the following of the norms. Rules are there which can be rigid and at times unjust and discriminatory. Sometimes we are called to question such rules in order to serve God and our neighbor in generosity and truth. Here we seek to follow Jesus who demands compassion and love more than external norms of justice. He seeks to serve, to help and to support in order to transform rules into action of love.
In the first Reading, we heard what happened when Moses gave the commandments of the Lord to His people. The Israelites were told to pay attention to the statutes and ordinances so they may live, enter and occupy the promised land. As commanded by God, Moses told the people that they must not add or subtract anything from the commandments of God. This was mainly to ensure that the commandments would remain untouched from generation to generation. Moses the leader explained to the Israelites that they have to be the example for others to show how concerned and caring their God is. He says: “What great nation is there that has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him? What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” The necessity to obey the commandments of God was not to boast regarding the richness of its spiritual benefits; it was necessary to do so because no other nation had a god so near to it as the Lord God was to His people. They had to lead a life better than the people of the land so as to be the example for them. At the same time Moses explained to the Israelites that obedience to the commandments of God was mandatory. Those who obey the commandments of the Lord would be blessed throughout their lives. Those who disobey the commandments of the Lord by turning to other gods, would be cursed.
St. James tells us in today’s Second Reading that every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above. All that is good, everything that is perfect is coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. All good actions that we perform, we do so by the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. God’s laws have not changed since the day of creation. As His creations, we are called to obey Him and serve Him in all humility and all righteousness. Jesus, as the Word of God, is the bearer of all this goodness and perfection. So James exhorts us to “accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you… You must do what the word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves.” In a striking contrast to what the Pharisees and scribes were saying to Jesus, James continues: “Pure, un-spoilt religion in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated from the world.” James intends to tell us that we are to be untouched by the spirit of the “world”.
The Gospel of today tells us about the observance of the prescribed rules by religion mainly in the context of the disciples. The Pharisees choose to attack Jesus through the action of the disciples. The problem had arisen by Jesus’ time that 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. Jesus also indicates that 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”.
Once again the Gospel presents a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. “Why do your disciples not wash their hands before eating?” This questions reminds us often of our family dinner table whether the children have washed their hands and if they are clean enough to eat the meal. It is more a matter of hygiene and etiquette. The question here 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 then is to put these Jewish customs in proper perspective. Washing hands before eating is a very sensible precaution and not to be a religious sanction. 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. So Jesus today quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “This people honours me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is useless, the doctrines they teach are mere human regulations. They put human traditions before the commandments of God.” These words seem directed not against the Pharisees as such but also against similar people among our own communities.
Jesus objected the attitude of the Pharisees. It was not that washing was a bad thing at all. What was bad was the notion that such formal and merely external actions constituted a person’s religion, to the exclusion of what was really important as an expression of piety. Insistence on such an action took away all the heart of a religion. The people had received the commandment of God through Moses and were told to observe them carefully. But it was lot more easy and less demanding for a Jew to wash his hands than it was to love of God with his whole being and to love his neighbor as himself. A parallel situation for us is that it is lot more easier to say grace before the meals than to be kind and considerate without fights and bickering during/after the meals. To say the grace is good but that itself is sufficient without showing any love to others is not really religious.
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 forbidden meat or by coming in contact with blood, still less by not washing hands before eating but by “evil intentions” that arise in the depths of the heart: lust, stealing, murder, adultery, greed, maliciousness, deceit, jealousy, slanderous talk, arrogance. All these are in direct conflict with a genuinely loving relationship with God and people. Washing hands does nothing to change that. What we need is the positive attitude to think more concretely of God an showing our love and concern to him and to one another.
We are called to be holy as our religion is holy. 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. As doers of the word, we are called to stand up for the oppressed. We are called to defend the unborn. We are called to condemn the death penalty so we will not have on our hands the blood of falsely convicted persons, this action also providing us with the opportunity to convert the hardest of sinners for the glory of God. What would have happened if St. Paul would have been executed for all what he did to the early Church Christians? Surely, a good part of the New Testament would be non-existent! Called to be doers of the Word of God, we are not called to be doers of the worldly pleasures that rob the grace of God from our souls. Called to be holy children as members of the holy Body of Christ, we are called to be doers of holy actions, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against such things. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.