30 August 2015
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
James 1:17-18, 20-22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
There was once a woman who had this terrible need to wash her hands many times each day. Especially before going to Mass she would wash her hands. Again, the same thing before and after Communion and also at the end of Mass. She really was a slave to this practice and felt that if she didn’t do it she would be punished by God.
This poor woman reminded me a lot of today’s gospel. The Pharisees and some of the Scribes were caught up in the same kind of practice and accused Jesus’ disciples of not washing their hands before eating and of not sprinkling themselves with water on returning from the market place. According to the Pharisees and the Scribes these things belonged to the essence of religion.
Here we see what is perhaps the major difference about what true religion is according to them and the vision of religion that Jesus came to reveal to us. He was saying that all washings and purifications are useless unless they lead to an inner purification, a conversion of our hearts.
We might laugh at and ridicule the Pharisees for these external practices which really had little to do with true religion, but they really believed what they were doing was God’s will. I met a man who, hallway through Lent, said he was a daily Massgoer but had stopped going to Communion. When I asked him why he said it was because on the previous Ash Wednesday he had eaten meat and only came to realize it next day. This external regulation prevented him from receiving Communion. He considered a Church regulation as more important than receiving the Eucharist. He cannot be blamed as he believed it was a serious sin. This is precisely why Jesus came to teach us the true meaning of religion. Reading the 4 gospels continually informs us what Jesus is telling us about true religion.
We must remind ourselves that Jesus did not come to get rid of laws but to give them their true value. The Jews were given the 10 commandments by God but eventually these laws and prescriptions increased to about 613 in number, most of them human regulations, so that it became almost impossible to keep them all. Many were expelled from the synagogue because of their failure to comply.
We can understand then why so many sinners, prostitutes, public sinners flocked to Jesus to hear his liberating message. He told them clearly that what mattered before God were not all these external practices. Most were unnecessary and in fact, kept people away from God. The essential was to love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbour as oneself. Anything not leading to these was not God’s way.
In the gospel Jesus is challenging the religious hypocrisy of some of the religious leaders of his time who robbed religion of its meaning by focusing on laws and appearances. Jesus is angry with them because their idea of religion is false. Their teaching does not take people deeper into their faith and causes others to turn away making them cynical about religion. In many ways Jesus is reminding us that our religion has to be better than mere externals. It’s really about an inner conversion, calling us to a change of heart where necessary. It’s about deepening our personal relationship with Jesus, with God. This means placing our trust in him as completely as we can. This a great gift to ask God for.
For me the easier part of my religion is celebrating Mass and praying. Forgiving those who hurt me or living in community with people who have another way of seeing things which are equally valid is much more challenging. All of you who are married know this. Life is not always easy and enjoyable.
Jesus’ message today is very simple and clear, though not always easy:
Do our religious practices or lifestyle lead to a greater loving service of our families and neighbours?
Do they lead to forgiving our enemies, help us to be non-judgmental etc.
Do they, above all, help you to come to an ever deeper awareness that God is our loving Father and will give us all the gifts we need to make us happy, free and at peace.
Jesus is speaking to us today: where am I unfree? What practices from childhood, family, Church still enslave me? What church traditions did I grow up with that do not give me peace, joy and help me to come to love God and my neighbours better?
Jesus is saying that one way to water down the gospel message is to transform it into a series of formal rules which are observed only externally. Rules are good only if they lead to true interior freedom.
True cleanliness consists in putting the Word of God into practice, a word of encouragement or a deed of love for others when it is possible even at the expense of one’s own comfort. Let us ask God’s help.
Jesus tells us that we should wash our hands of anything which prevents us from making the life of our neighbours easier or better especially the poor, the widows and orphans as St.James tells us in the second reading today.
“Lord Jesus, help me to let go of any external practices which do not lead to interior conversion and to a more loving service of others. Amen”.
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA