God's Commands and Human Traditions
(Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21-22,27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
Introduction to Mass
Jesus often developed his own teaching in the course of polemical exhanges with his opponents, especially the Scribes and Pharisees. The gospel passage this Sunday illustrates another area of sharp disagreement between them, about the nature of devotion to God and the form of outward expression which that devotion should take.
As we prepare to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s love we acknowledge our sinfulness and ask God for his pardon and healing.
The first thing that’s worth pointing out about the gospel passage we just listened to is that it’s probably quite difficult for most modern people to sympathise with the mentality that produced the Pharisees’ elaborate rules of cleanliness because we live at a time and in a culture which seems to be quite hostile towards any outward display of religious belief.
It’s fairly common today for people to argue, for example, that they can live a Christian way of life without being baptised, without belonging to the Church community, without taking part in any form of public worship. Similarly, many couples are adamant that they can commit themselves to each other sincerely and genuinely without going through any formal marriage ceremony - either religious or civil.
On another level people today often undervalue traditional gestures like making the sign of the Cross or genuflecting in front of the Blessed Sacrament, or the ritual actions we engage in when we sit, stand and kneel at different points during the Mass, when we strike our breast during the “I Confess” and bow in the middle of the Creed.
The conviction that seems to underlie this indifference towards the outward expressions of belief is the idea that the important thing about religion is to put the right moral values into practice, especially anything that could be included under the heading of “love of neighbour”, whereas ceremonies and ritual gestures are regarded as secondary or purely decorative.
My own opinion is that, as the Church community, we needn’t feel too overwhelmed by these kinds of criticism.
The reality is that the people who are quick to dismiss outward signs of devotion often have quite superficial notions about God and spirituality, and they haven’t actually reflected very deeply on the things they’re rejecting at all. So there’s no need for us to feel reticent in defending our Christian symbols and gestures from attacks by ignorant people.
But in any case, the important point here is that this negative and dismissive attitude wasn’t Jesus’ attitude. When he disagreed with the Pharisees about their rules regarding hand-washing and cleaning pots and so on, it wasn’t because he objected in principle to the idea of external signs of religious devotion.
What he objected to, fundamentally, was the fact that the Pharisees’ practices, for all their elaborateness and all their rigour, didn’t bring about any genuine closeness to God.
For the scribes and Pharisees, evidently, cleanliness was next to godliness. Their preoccupation with washing their hands before eating, cleaning their pots and dishes and so on, signified in their own minds that they were close to God and that they were fit and worthy to approach God.
Their great emphasis on ritual cleanliness was also meant to impress other people with the sense of their great sanctity and spiritual authority. Their rules were so strict and exacting that most ordinary people couldn’t keep them, so that the Pharisees looked down on them as “unclean” – excluded from God’s company, in effect.
Jesus naturally rejected this whole way of thinking about God and relating to God.
First of all, as he says in this passage, he objected to the way the Pharisees exalted a set of rules and regulations which they had invented themselves. Their customs didn’t in any sense come from God, and by pointing that out Jesus was attacking the foundation of the Pharisees’ authority.
What Jesus says here is consistent with the words of Moses in today’s first reading: the Jewish faith as a whole contained laws and traditions which did enjoy divine authority, and “you must add nothing to what I command you, and take nothing from it,” Moses instructs the community.
Compared to the heart of the Law, the elaborate practices of the Pharisees are only “human regulations” Jesus declares, citing the prophet Isaiah as his authority, so they can’t be regarded as binding on people and they can’t be seen to determine whether anyone is genuinely close to God or not.
Jesus’ second objection is that the Pharisees are putting all their energy into the wrong activity. They’re too concerned with creating an outward appearance of piety while neglecting the real job of reforming their inner motives and intentions. Their hands might be physically clean – but that doesn’t count for much if, interiorly, they’re driven by the kind of predatory, self-seeking motives that Jesus gives a long list of.
What Jesus is doing here is he’s repeating the traditional criticism of the Old Testament prophets. God isn’t interested in - and certainly doesn’t feel honoured by – theatrical outward displays of devotion.
God’s message, which he communicated over and again through the prophets, was that if people wanted to show their devotion to him, the best way to do it was by allowing their innermost intentions, and the motives that directed their behaviour, to be transformed through contact with him:
“Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn”, as the prophet Joel says. And the same kind of point was being made by Isaiah when he told people that God would rather see them practicing justice and honesty in their business affairs than indulging in showy penances and fasting exercises.
This is the aspect of Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees’ that blends in with what St. James says in the second reading. “Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this,” James says: “coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world”.
In other words, men and women who allow themselves to come under God’s influence are gradually liberated from worldly motives – aspirations towards personal material success and a purely selfish happiness - and begin to move instead towards an attitude of solidarity with those who are weak or suffering or needy.
What we’re forced to conclude I think is that Christ didn’t so much see outward displays of devotion to God as worthless. His point is that if our inner intentions and motives are the right ones, genuinely inspired by our receptiveness to God, then our outward gestures will naturally be an expression of them.
That was the root of his opposition to the practices of the Pharisees, that was the main point he wanted to make in his debate with them, and that’s the lesson we can draw as a guide to our own faith in God and how we ought to express it outwardly.