Our Prior, Fr. Joel gave the homily this morning:
Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–8
James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The gospel we have heard introduces a theme that comes up time again in Jesus’ teaching and practice. But Jesus himself refers back to the prophet Isaiah. This makes the theme an old one that the prophetic tradition had to address also. With this reference to the prophets, Jesus reminds us that the theme is one that seems to be part of our human nature. The theme—the relationship between my inner self and my outer self. Or what is happening in my heart actually governs what I say and do.
The Pharisees function in the gospel as a negative example. The Pharisees were actually a very observant group of Jewish believers. One of their characteristics was meticulous observance of details in the Mosaic Law. Their observance went so far that they added prescriptions to the Law to preserve the Law in its purity; these became the traditions we hear about. According to Jesus, these meticulous demands of the Law made the Law a burden. The focus went from the heart of the Law to external observances. The result was that the purpose of the Law to make concrete love of God and love of neighbor got lost.
Jesus does not condemn the ritual observances, even the ritual purity laws that are mentioned today about the washing of cups and the body so as not to incur defilement. Admittedly, this is not something that Christians today immediately relate to. But what Jesus does do is make it very clear that limiting the law to external observances in fact destroys the Law. In our day, doing the religious observances could mean frequenting the sacraments and devotion to prayer. Jesus would not condemn our practice of these any more than he did in his own day. But he would challenge whether our prayers and our participation in the sacraments come from the heart or are just merely ritual actions that we do out of duty and mere habit. Do we share in the sacraments and say prayers without a thought as to what we are doing or what we are saying? To use the words of the prophet Isaiah, are we saying the words, using our lips, but in fact our minds are elsewhere? Or do our religious observances come from the heart and do they in turn affect the heart? If we listen to Jesus and understand him, as he asks of us today, he is looking for changed hearts, a life of conversion. Are we members in his Body the Church who are other-centered? It is clear that God, let alone Jesus, is not looking for lip service followers.
As we listen to Jesus today, we hear him use many contrasts: clean and unclean; inside and outside; human tradition and teaching and God’s commandments, lips and heart, within and without. If we were to line them up, we would hear clearly the central thread: heart, clean, inside, God’s commandments. Each one of those is connected to the other. Together they form the whole and the perspective that Jesus is looking for. What matters is a heart that centers on and acts out of God’s commandments and in doing so is clean and undefiled.
It would seem that the scrupulous observance of the Pharisees has led them to kind of pride. They compare themselves with others and when they see that others do not observe as they do, they have a tendency to think of themselves as superior. The result is self-righteousness and an attitude of being judgmental toward others. This is a common trait of those who think their observance is the true and only valid one, back then and today. They have become the point of comparison. Gone is the very purpose of the commandment or ritual which is to align oneself with God’s love, concern and compassion for others. The critique of Isaiah and Jesus is that the religious rituals became an end in themselves. …We are not exempt today from making liturgical and ritual observances an end in themselves. If we do, we fail in fulfilling the very purpose of sacrament and common prayer. And that purpose is to remember and celebrate the overwhelming gift of God’s presence and love. Ritual observance is about enhancing the relationship with our God, who as Moses says today is so close to us. It is the awareness of God’s closeness that prompts us to a fullness of religious ritual and obedience to the commandments. Law and ritual give structure to the closeness of God.
Jesus wants us to avoid one of the great downfalls of religious observance, namely, forgetting that the commandment or the Torah is ultimately a gift from God. Observance of the commandments is meant to awaken in us the very love that motivates God to remain close to us. This love is felt and reflected on first of all in our hearts. And from there, it directs our external behavior. Our liturgical actions have their root in recognition of the supreme gift that is God’s presence. Meticulous observance, such as Jesus condemns, can end up placing the focus on me, on what I am doing. But observing and keeping the great commandments or even the ritual of sacraments should make me aware of others. Keeping the commandments is in fact maintaining and enhancing relationships, with fellow human beings, fellow Christians and God.
Jesus is about the heart of the matter, the center of the Law. And when asked what that is, he affirms that it is love, love of God with our whole self and love of neighbor as our self. Those who see people living the commandments see wisdom, see God and how near he is. Jesus’ teaching today questions any disconnect between our religious ritual life and our inner moral life. They are one. We cannot say “yes” on the outside but inside are saying and thinking “no.”
May it be that our hearts are clean and our thoughts are those of peace and our actions those of love.