Sister Ana Cloughly, OSB reflects on the readings
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Cleanliness is close to godliness
Today we hear the Pharisees and scribes challenging Jesus about the behavior of his disciples. They are not following the traditions of cleanliness. The laws, observances, statutes, and decrees found in the Pentateuch are much more than a set of rules for the Jewish people. They shape a way of life in much the same way as the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and by extension, the Rule of St. Benedict shapes our lives. Boys and sometime girls learned to live these mandates from God primarily in their home, at the synagogue and in some places Torah school. So, for Jesus’ disciples to disregard the cleanliness tradition was problematic. For the Pharisees and scribes observing both the laws and the tradition was a mark of a true teacher. Disregarding the cleanliness observances diminished Jesus’ credibility as a teacher.
There is another dimension to Jewish law which is found in the first reading, Deuteronomy, chapter four. Moses is handing on the laws and observances to the people. He sees the giving of the law as forming a people, a nation. But not just a nation. Moses says,
“For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today? Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.”
Observing the law was then and still is today a witness of a caring and just God.
Jesus answers the challenge from the Pharisees and scribes with a challenge of his own.
“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; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
When I was a campus minister, our students started their own tradition. They set their phones to 9:00 pm and when the phone alarm rang, they would stop and pray for each other. They also set up an iconostas before mass and would walk around the chapel with incense singing inviting the Saints to pray with us. They ritualized just about everything. One of our visitors suggested that the pious things they were doing were unnecessary. And she wondered why we allowed it. I told her that most of them were just coming into their own faith, not the faith of their parents. They needed to have their rituals for now. As in any community there were disagreements and hurt feelings. Their rituals called them back to a sense of belonging. Eventually, the students graduate and there are new campus ministers and the rituals disappeared.
Jesus is not challenging the rituals around cleanliness. He is challenging the spiritual leaders to recognize their motivations. The law of Moses forms a people who know God cares and that God is a God of justice. Living by divine law does give witness to the care and justice of God. However, making a show of living the law but not actually living by it also gives witness.
One of the unique aspects of Judaism is their emphasis on justice. God put justice into divine law. Tribal gods and even the national gods of Rome did not have justice as part of their belief system. All the things that Jesus lists that come out of the body, “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly,” diminish wellbeing on a personal level and in the community. No engagement with any of these happens in isolation. No sin is private. We are finding out how dangerous “evil thoughts” are today. Fantasizing negative or violent actions leads to desensitization and opens the path for acting out the fantasies.
God wants wellbeing for all of creation. For true justice and well-being to exist, we must take responsibility for what comes from within us. Tradition and ritual have their place and do a great deal to keep our hearts focused on God. Jesus is taking this moment to teach the people and religious leaders that ritual is not the end game. Recognizing that our own behavior is what thwarts God’s justice, and the well-being of others is much more important. Our witness as persons and communities of faith needs to be authentic to convey that God is really a God who cares and seeks justice for the good of all.