The Nazareth Page - A gospel meditation for the home
September 2, 2018 – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today’s gospel begins with the Pharisees (a religious group known for their passion about following the external practice of religious laws and customs) complaining to Jesus about the behavior of some of his disciples. Apparently, they would eat without first ritually washing their hands. That was a religious custom of that time. This is not totally unlike parents today who routinely say to their young children before a meal, “Did you wash your hands? Let me see them. I want proof.”
Of course, today’s parental reminder is mostly based on health reasons. Dirty hands can contaminate foods that are eaten with hands – a practice many children seem to have. But the Pharisees were focused on other matters, namely prescribed external acts that are part of their way of being religious. “Follow all the rules,” they would say.
First, note that Jesus does not give an excuse for the behaviour of his disciples. He does not defend them and their “dirty” hands. But he is concerned about what might lie beneath the surface of the Pharisee’s complaint. And what lies beneath the surface is always the concern of Jesus. Thus, he takes that moment to teach the Pharisees about what really is important, namely their basic religious attitudes about following God’s law. He is calling for full personal honesty.
Being fully honest with oneself is never easy. In fact, there are times when we react externally just the opposite of what’s in our hearts. We smile when we are sad inside. We agree with this or that when inside we are full of disagreement. We keep working when we are dead tired. We hold back our words when we disagree with what’s being said by others. We do these things because we want to appear good (or respectable) before others, a trait that those Pharisees seem to endorse. For them, looking good was more important than being good. And Jesus wanted them (and us) to know that God is more interested in what’s in our hearts than what’s on our hands.
It’s a matter of priorities. We all know that we can’t fool God. The gospels often teach that God wants what is in our hearts, namely our love, more than anything else. External acts and reactions are important, but they are secondary to our real desires, our personal dreams and the orientation of our hearts. Moms and dads want their children to have clean hands when they pick up that slice of pizza for dinner. But they are more interested that their children are grateful for the gift of food and family, gathered to celebrate their love for each other.
©David M. Thomas, PhD