A reading from the gospel according to Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
1 When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem
gathered around Jesus,
2 they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.
3 (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders.
4 And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.
5 So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
6 He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.
8 You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
14 He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand.
15 Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.
21 “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
23 All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Good News: Nothing that enters one from outside can defile a person.
The Pharisees and scribes are religious leaders who are intensely focused on legalities, externalities and traditions. What is more repugnant to Jesus is that they also strictly imposed on the people their superficial views and understanding of the law disregarding the law’s spirit which is compassion, love and mercy. The law was intended to uplift the people and make them closer to God but these leaders made it burdensome to the poor and the marginalized. The worst part is that these leaders often make excuses whenever it is not convenient for them to follow the law. It is no wonder that Jesus called them hypocrites.
Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13 to summarize the attitude of the Pharisees and scribes whose lip-service and dedication to following traditions were considered vain. Obviously, Jesus is not concerned so much with external cleanliness. He sees rather what is in the heart of people.
The heart is the center of our spiritual life just as it is the center of our biological life. Our thinking comes from the heart (Luke 9:47). Also, our desires and fears arise from our heart (Matthew 5:28, John 14:27). That is why Jesus is emphatic when He says that from the heart come evil thoughts, lust, and many other undesirable behaviors. Thus, we sin from within, not from outside.
Although washing hands is a good practice to maintain good physical health, it has nothing to do with our spiritual health. To avoid sin and thus maintain purity, we need to follow God’s commandments, the greatest of them is to love Him and to love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:34). Indeed, it is important that we make our body clean but it is far more important to keep our mind and heart free from evil thoughts and sinful desires.
Other points to consider / Questions for meditation:
1. The Pharisees and scribes do not appreciate the good things / miracles that Jesus did or was doing before their eyes. They were more interested in looking for mistakes or lapses in His teachings or in His disciples. Does it sound familiar?
2. Where is the dividing line between the essential and the trivial? Pray that the Holy Spirit will grant us the gift of discernment.
3. What is the role of tradition in our spiritual life? Do the traditions of the church essential in our spiritual growth?
4. Were the Pharisees really bad? Were they not also trying to please God?
5. Are you more religious or more spiritual?