Did you Wash Inside or Outside the Cup?
Reading 1: Deuteronomy 4: 1 – 2, 6 – 8
Responsorial Psalm : 15
Reading 2: James 1. 17 – 18, 21 – 22, 27
Gospel: Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, 21 – 23
Washing of hands is the best hygienic custom for any human person. It holds good also, for those lived at the time of Lord Jesus. Because of their closeness to Jesus his disciples were in no way exempted from washing of their hands before meals. Jesus being the wisdom of the Father, would have followed it and expected his disciples too, to observe this ritual. There is no doubt about this. Jesus did not endorse the negligence of his disciples in this regard nor did He permit them to violate it. Rather Jesus uses this as a powerful teaching moment, inviting us to go beyond the outward observances and to look more deeply at what is the true religion. The Jewish rituals of purification had gone beyond hands to include kettles, pots and even beds. Jesus wants us to observe all the rituals, rites, and practices found in our religion not, as mere outward deeds but always connected to the total love of God, not as mere lip service but as a loving deed to a lover, namely god.
Sometimes, I truly feel for the Pharisees. When most people read the Gospels, they automatically vilify these men. Over the years, I have grown to not see them as the embodiment of all forces in opposition to the Lord Jesus, but as religiously observant men who miss the bigger picture. With their focus on the details of the practice of their faith, they fail to see that the fulfillment of their faith is standing right in their midst.
Who were the Pharisees? Simply put, they were those who “set apart,” “separated” from the impure, the Gentiles, and the non-observant members of Judaism. Beginning around the second century BC, these “separated” brethren, the “pious,” lived their lives in strict accord with the life-giving, liberating laws which Moses promulgates in today’s first reading, taken from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. Read again the words of Moses:
“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.
“You shall not add to what I command you, nor subtract from it.” Yet, when we try to understand the New Testament world in which Our Blessed Lord walked, we need to recall that even the Pharisees were thought to be too weak in their interpretations. They were considered by some to not be conservative enough. Groups like the Essenes believed that the Pharisees were the “seekers of smooth things” or “givers of smooth interpretations.” Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees interpreted the Law orally, eventually collecting their interpretations in the Mishnah (c. 200 AD).
The truth of the matter is the Pharisees were striving really hard to keep their religion pure and unblemished amid the growing secularization caused by Hellenism and the secular world. Yes, they are “blind guides,” and not to sound like an apologist for the Pharisees, were they really that different than many of us today who are striving to keep our faith, our families, our Church’s teachings and worship correct in a world that is mightily battling to assimilate our faith, to secularize our teachings, and to water-down our worship?
Can you imagine what encountering Our Blessed Lord Jesus must have been like for the Pharisees? Here is a man, the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, who is claiming by his words and his deeds to be in breaking the Kingdom of God. This man heals the sick, feeds the multitude, and raises the dead. Some of his followers are claiming that this “rabbi” who eats with sinners, with prostitutes, with tax collectors, is the long-awaited Messiah, God Himself come in the flesh. This man surrounds himself with disciples who, for the most part, are from the lower echelons of society, fisherman and the like. The words that this Jesus speaks are like none they had every heard. And it probably scared them to death.
So fight him they do, looking for ways to ensnare him in his words, trying to prove that they have the correct answers and that this one from Nazareth is going to ultimately lead his growing disciples astray.
Jesus rightly called their purity practices what they were “human tradition” . Nowhere in Scripture does God command his people to be so rigorous in cleansing themselves or their household items. Instead, what began as a precaution among priests gradually morphed into litmus test for every Israelite. If you didn’t wash your hands just so, you were impure. It meant your faith was defective or worse, you were defective.
Litmus tests can make things clear and simple, but the Pharisees were using them in the wrong way. To determine what was pure and impure, they needed to focus on what was lurking in their own hearts, not what was contaminating them from the outside. As Jesus warned them, it is “the things that come out from within” our own sinful inclinations that defile us.
Our rules for hand washing today are aimed toward preventing disease, but we can easily fall into the same habit as these Pharisees did. We can focus more on what’s on the “outside” – the culture or the actions of other people rather than facing the sinful desires in our hearts. After all, it’s painful to see just how capable we are of falling into sin. It’s easier just to apply a litmus test to the sins of the people around us.
Would I be a Pharisee, a group which consisted of both clerics and laymen, if I were a Jew of the Lord Jesus’ day? In my own personal spiritual life, in my search for holiness, in my following of the rules which the Holy Church does teach, do I put more emphasis on the performance and the following of the tenets of my faith (which are important and are meant to be followed) and lose sight of the Lord Jesus who is standing in my midst, demanding my full and undivided attention?
This week, perhaps we might want to recognize the Pharisee who might live in you and me and catch ourselves, knowing that we need to be wise and follow the law of our faith, but at the same time not lose sight of the All-Beautiful One, Christ our Lord, who beckons us forward to follow him in spirit and in truth.
God bless. Have a blessed day