The Law of Moses was very important for the people of Israel. They were proud of the legal system they had developed in their desire to be God’s people. “What great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?”, Moses asks the Israelites in the first reading that we heard from the book of Deuteronomy.
Through the Law, they were expected to lead lives that were different, if not better than their pagan neighbors. There was a great emphasis on the observance of the Law as a sign of commitment and obedience to the Lord. But, by the time of Jesus, the Law had become so hopelessly complicated in its applications that only experts could interpret it in the many practical problems which would arise in daily life. The law was no longer a guide to help people love and serve God, but an end in itself. It was all about external behavior.
As Jesus relates in today’s Gospel, many of the laws were of human invention. They had little to do with loving God, but rather of conforming to social demands. If they were faithful to the external observance of the Law, they were “good Jews.” Even in our own day, you hear things like: “Joe’s a good Catholic, he never misses Sunday Mass.” We have no idea of what he thinks or believes, or how he relates to people outside of Mass. We judge by the external, but in most cases, we really don’t know what’s going on inside Joe.
The problem presented in the Gospel today is a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. And it isn’t the first. They ask Jesus why his disciples do not wash their hands before eating. Washing your hands is a sensible precaution, especially today. There were many prescriptions in Jewish law that were primarily hygienic in origin. As we know, eating with dirty hands could be a source of disease and sickness. By attaching a religious sanction to the behavior observation was more likely.
Jesus is not criticizing these precautions. What he is criticizing is the unequal importance given to these things to the neglect of what is more important, the love of God and love of neighbor. In strong words to the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors 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”.
Enslavement to culture and tradition is a major cause of conflict in our world today, between communities, and even in families. Fundamentalism is on the rise in many countries and religions, even our own. It is a terrible source of hatred and violence in many countries and the negation of true religion, whatever your beliefs. It is a scourge. This lack of tolerance is shameful especially when many countries are experiencing a greater ethnic, cultural, and religious mix of people, due to an increase in immigration.
Where does real uncleanness come from? It does not come from food or drink. A person does not become unclean by eating pork or by coming into contact with blood, as the Jewish law stated. You may remember the scene in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter, in a trance, sees what seems to be a large sheet being lowered from heaven which contained unclean animals, according to the Jewish law. The voice from heaven says to him, “Do not call something unclean, if God has called it clean”
Uncleanness comes from “evil intentions” that arise in the depths of the heart. Jesus then recites that devasting list of evil intentions: lust, theft, murder, adultery, greed, maliciousness, deceit, jealousy, slander, arrogance. All these are in direct conflict with Christian life, which is a loving relationship with God and one another.
In contrast to what the Pharisees and Scribes were saying to Jesus, we heard in the letter of James, “Pure 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 unspoiled by the world”. In other words, religion has little to do with the rigid observance of laws but keeping ourselves free from corrupting influences and being sensitive to the needs of the weak and most vulnerable persons among us. “As often as you did it to the least of my brethren you did it to me.”
There are some people who are attracted to a religion of strict laws and regulations. It makes them feel secure. It sets boundaries and keeps everything correct and precise, there are no gray areas. Everything is either black or white, there is only right or wrong. There are no exceptions for a fundamentalist.
Many of us grew up in an era when preoccupation with sin was the norm. Is this a sin, we would ask? Is it a mortal sin or a venial sin? How many times did I do it? The concern here is not fear of sin but fear of punishment and keeping myself from feelings of guilt.
It is possible to keep all the laws and rules perfectly, as Pharisees of all ages do, and still not be a “good” person. The law-keeper is primarily concerned with himself, not God. Getting all A’s is more important than loving God and showing charity to others.
I’m not advocating the abolishment of all laws. No human organization, government, or religion can function without rules and regulations. Without them, there would be chaos. However, laws are meant to help groups to work together, to ensure justice, equity, safety, and peace. They are a means, not an end.
Unlike the Mosaic Law, the Gospel is not a code of laws, it is a way of life. It provides a vision and a guide for us as we try to love God and make our way to his kingdom. It is focused on relationships and not actions. We have all been given a conscience and free will. When we commit theft, murder, adultery, scandal, maliciousness, and deceit, I don’t think we have to ask, “Is this a sin.” Whether we are religious or not, our conscience informs us when we have committed a grave offense against God and others. Deeds speak for themselves. What lies in our hearts are the evil intentions, as Jesus tells us, that are the source of our actions.
Jesus wants us to stop being so preoccupied with the exterior part of our lives. We need interior purification first. As he said to the Pharisees in the Gospel in Matthew: “First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may also become clean”. God looks into our hearts and he will judge us on how we have loved and the goodness of our lives, not just what we have done. No one can achieve purity of heart without the help of God. He is willing, but we have to allow him to do it.
Photograph and homily by Father Emmanuel.