Thursday, 26 August 2021 11:32

Washing hearts, not hands

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22OTBWeb400The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus and they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. For 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 are also many other observances which have been handed down to them concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes. So these Pharisees and scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?’ He answered, ‘It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so rightly prophesied in this passage of Scripture:

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.

He called the people to him again and said, ‘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.’ (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

This weekend we resume reading from St Mark’s Gospel. This Sunday’s episode is about ritual purity verses purity of heart. The Pharisees were a group of especially observant Jews. They took ritual observance very seriously. These observant Pharisees and some scribes criticise the disciples for ‘not following the tradition of the elders’ by not washing their hands before eating.

This passage is not about good hygiene but about a ritual practice. By the time of Jesus the Pharisees wanted to extend the laws of ritual purity, which applied only to priests, to all the people. Jesus accuses them of substituting the law of God with mere human regulations.
The second point that Jesus makes is that it is not what goes into a person from outside which makes them unclean, but what they harbour in their hearts and minds.

We, too, can fall into the trap of thinking that our ritual practices (going to Mass, saying the Rosary, etc) are all that is necessary to be good followers of Jesus.

Some Christians seem to think that ritual practice is about being at rights with God; almost like ‘paying God off’. That having been done, they are free to do what they like in their actions towards other human beings.

The teaching of Jesus in the Gospel today challenges both those views.

It is the reform of our hearts, not our ritual practices, which needs attention and is most important in living out the vocation God has given us. If the goodness of God is not seen through us, where can it be seen?

Jesus reminds his listeners that evil does not come from the outside, but from within. According to Jesus, being at rights with God is not achieved through ritual practice but through inner conversion to the mind and heart of God.

Real religion, according to the Jesus tradition, is not about ritual practise but about how we treat each other.

It’s our hearts, not our hands, which need washing.

Download our Celebrating At Home liturgy for this Sunday:

pdf Celebrating At Home 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time [PDF] (3.78 MB)
default Celebrating At Home 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time [ePub] (6.63 MB)


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