Mission Society of the Philippines



Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


WE HAVE HEARD in the gospel passage about handwashing as among the so-called Jewish tradition of the elders. Some believed that it was probably a custom that arose in Jesus’ time among certain Jewish groups and is one of the few purity practices to have survived since the destruction of the Temple. It is important to note that no transgression of the law was attributed to Jesus. It was His disciples who were questioned by the Pharisees. The Pharisees had seen or observed that His disciples did not wash their hands before eating.

Jesus is not critical of the Jewish law as such. What He questions are the further prescriptions and customs that were not part of the original revelation and which in His view could sometimes run counter its true purpose.

These traditions were particularly preserved by the Pharisees. In their striving to become holy, they maintained rituals of cleanliness which were originally intended for the priests, but then later extended to ordinary or common people. As we see it, the intention was good. But Jesus was against it because the overemphasis on the external rituals leads to the neglect of the inner conversion of heart, which is more important in our relationship with God. Jesus rather finds it as a hypocrisy on the part of the Pharisees. He quoted Isaiah 29:13: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (v. 6). For Jesus, everything goes back to the heart. Holiness is ultimately about conversion of heart.

Each one of us is striving to become holy or to live a life of holiness, because that is God expects us so. Jesus elsewhere in the gospels says, “Be holy, as your Father is holy.” However, if we want to test ourselves if we are holy, we must look at what comes out of our heart. Towards the end of the gospel passage, Jesus mentioned the list of vices which serves as a sort of check-list: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”

Jesus accuses the Pharisees and scribes of hypocrisy. They put so much emphasis on external religious observances, but the inner attitudes of love and service are missing.

And this can be a reminder for all of us. In every religion, there is an accompanying set of external rituals. There is a great danger to identify religion with outward observance. Religious activities that we join in are necessary, and yes, they may contribute to our striving to become holy. But it is not absolute. Often these external religious activities do not necessarily make us holy persons. It is our inner motive and pure intention make us holy. Again, what comes out from the heart is more important.

In the Second Reading, the Letter of James has something to say about the subject matter. If we put the words of the Letter in the context of the gospel passage, cleanliness consists in living out the Word of God or in putting the Word of God into practice. Thus, St James exhorts us, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” That is holiness.

For the Fathers of the Church, like St Augustine, holiness consists in the correspondence between what one believes and what one lives. A holy person is someone who lives out what he believes. Because the law of belief is the law of life or in Latin, “lex credendi, lex vivendi”. AMEN.

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