What a wonderful thing it would be if we could wash our sins away in the shower; if we could become pure in God’s eyes with the right kind of soap! Unfortunately, even the ‘deep-cleansing’ concoctions which teenagers use to rid themselves of troublesome skin problems just won’t reach down deep enough to get rid of sin.
The Pharisees and Scribes of today’s gospel were pre-occupied with ritual purity which centred on the external action of ritual washing. This involved a complicated washing of fingers, hands and arms according to tedious regulations which sometimes became laughable in their solemn trivial-mindedness.
As the gospel says: The Pharisees, and the Jews in general, follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves.
There’s something sadly amusing, even humiliating, about that phrase 'sprinkling themselves' chosen by the translators of the Jerusalem Bible. Others put it more kindly as 'purifying themselves'. In any case, this concern for purity embraced the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes, as well as cutlery and even beds.
So these Pharisees and Scribes asked Jesus: Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands? When you've been doing something for many years you somehow cease being able to imagine that it might not be right, or no longer appropriate.
Well, before we go to Jesus’ response we have to understand a little more of these ‘traditions of the elders’ and why he found them so reprehensible. The truth is that they were not God’s laws but man’s laws. They had begun, as with most religious abuses, from a good intention; they were intended to bring the ordinary activities of human existence into the realm of worshipping God. In other words, they were meant to ‘sanctify’ or ‘make holy’ the everyday household activities as acts which praised God.
However, like the trimmings on the Rosary, these regulations grew and grew, until they actually became impossible for an ordinary Jew to fully observe. Only the idle rich had the time and money to do so and gradually a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality developed among the Pharisees and Scribes. Because they kept the ‘traditions of the elders’ they thought themselves righteous in God’s eyes, whereas the ‘others’ were not.
Jesus found this attitude entirely repugnant and exclaimed: This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations. You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.
Significantly, Jesus called the people to him. The teachers of the Law had failed the people and so now he fulfils the prophecy - they will all be taught by God (John 6:45) - and tells them: Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean. For it is from within, from men's hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean.
Through this teaching Jesus placed purity and righteousness back within the reach of the 'little man', of every human being, even pagans. A similar motive caused him to clear the Temple in Jerusalem of all the trading and money-changing that was happening there in the Court of the Gentiles, the Outer Court. Jesus wanted the Temple to be a place of prayer for every human being but the traders had deprived the Gentiles of this quiet place of prayer as they had deprived the poor of the possibility of righteousness. Prayer, like cleanliness of the heart, is possible for everyone. Ritual cleanliness was possible only for the rich and the idle.
Moreover, Jesus showed the Pharisees and the Scribes that their cleanliness was really no cleanliness at all. They had external cleanliness which did not reach their inner selves.
Naturally, they did not like to hear this.
The apostle James, who we will have for the next 3 weeks asks: Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start? Isn’t it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves (hearts)?
If all sin comes from the heart, from our inner selves, then the battleground of the spiritual life must also be the human heart. If we are to have peace, love, forgiveness, purity, faithfulness and so on in the world, we need to have peace, love, forgiveness, purity, faithfulness and so on in our hearts.
Any external actions we do, even actions that are good in themselves, if they do not have their origin in good hearts, make us hypocrites and corrupt our hearts even further. That was what was wrong with the Pharisees. They were like the smile of an air hostess I once saw – a ‘paid’ smile, with no joy behind it. Jesus said: This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me.
Clearly, to be considered good in the eyes of Jesus our good actions must come from good hearts; we must be converted in our hearts. How do we do this? You already know the answer to that question but I'll remind you.
Faithfulness to Sunday Mass, our great act of worship of God, must always come first. Then – a good life, regular confession, daily prayer, a little penance, study of the faith, perseverance. Conversion of heart usually takes time and effort but God’s merciful help is always waiting for us. His grace can get down into those ‘hard to reach’ places within us, and give us a purity and beauty which only he can bestow.