The Law of Moses was very important for the people of Israel. They were rightly proud of the legal system they had developed in their desire to be God’s people. "What great nation is there that has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him? What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?", Moses asks the Israelites in the First Reading.
Through the Law they were expected to lead lives which were different, better than their ‘pagan’ neighbors. There was, then, great emphasis on the observance of the Law as a sign of commitment and obedience to God.
But, by the time of Jesus, the law was no longer a guideline helping people on their way to loving and serving God. Observing the law had become an end in itself. The emphasis was not on building a relationship with God and one’s fellow human beings but on checking out one’s own external behavior. Law had little to do with loving God but rather of conforming to social demands. Am I Ok?
For the next five weeks the second reading will be from the Letter of James. He does not mean to decry the importance of liturgy—after all, he mentions baptism and the hearing of the word—but he insists that the performance of these must lead to a life of moral obedience and cannot be a substitute for it.
"Why do your disciples not wash their hands before eating?" The purpose of today’s Gospel then is to put these Jewish customs in proper perspective. Washing hands before eating is a very sensible precaution. How often as children were we told: "Don’t come to the table until you have washed your hands!"? There were many prescriptions in Jewish law which seem to be primarily hygienic in origin. Religious sanction reinforced sensible behavior.
Jesus is not criticizing such precautions. What he is criticizing is the disproportionate importance given to these things to the neglect of what is far more important, the love of God and the care for one’s fellow human beings. So Jesus today quotes from the prophet Isaiah: "This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is useless, the doctrines they teach are mere human regulations. They put human traditions before the commandments of God."
JESUS turned a controversy about whether to observe Israelite rules about eating into a larger issue of what does and does not make a person holy and pure. It should be said that the Pharisees were pursuing and promoting holiness, but, Christ said, they were going about it the wrong way. Closeness to God does not begin with how faithfully you perform external actions. What you do and how you do it, while important, are deceptive if they fail to indicate your inner disposition.
One goes to church and hears the preacher say: “Be holy. Behave like the people of God.” Unless you know the story, unless you’ve heard years of instruction and seen examples of the behavior in the leadership or the assembly, words like these fail to relate to reality.
Unhappily that is precisely the experience too many Christians have had. They hear churchy instructions and respond in churchy ways, kneeling down, folding their hands, saying their prayers, receiving their sacraments. This is what it means to be holy, right? This is how the people of God behave? It’s all they know because it’s all they’ve seen or understood.
The source of uncleanness, Jesus says, is not any food or drink that comes from outside. "Evil intentions" arise in the depths of the heart: lust, stealing, greed etc. All these are in direct conflict with a genuinely loving relationship with God and people. It is not external behaviors that define religious fidelity, but the internal dispositions of heart from which behavior flows. Washing hands does nothing to change that.
James teaches: "Pure, unspoilt religion in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it”. In other words, religion has little to do with the observance of laws but being sensitive to the needs of the weakest and most marginalized among us.
But there is a strong attraction to follow a religion of laws and regulations. How often do we ask the question: "Is this a sin?" "Is it a mortal sin or ‘only’ a venial sin?" The main concern seems to be “what can I get away with?” and “How can I be free from feelings of guilt?”
But these are not the questions to ask. Our real concern should be: "Is this a loving thing to do?" There may or may not be any commandment or regulation about it but if it is not a word or an act of love, then it is not Christian, it is not truly a human act and it is not a moral act.
Last Saturday, I celebrated a mass at 2pmin the afternoon. A question was asked whether we could use the Sunday Readings. Well, we know that we can anticipate the Sunday on the vigil, but it should be the evening of the day. So in fact the question was, “Will this fulfill the obligation of Sunday Worship?” I am the keeper of the law, a priest, and so I was asked. I think a good response might be, “Obviously you came today to celebrate your faith in the gift of the Eucharist, what do you want to do tomorrow?.
It is possible to keep all the laws and rules perfectly and yet be very far from the spirit of Jesus and the Gospel. The law-keeper is primarily concerned with "saving his soul", with "being in the state of grace". Even when she shows "charity" to others it is often simply to get "merit" for herself.
Obviously in our Church and in our parish and wherever people have to work together, we have to have rules. But they are only means to help us work together more smoothly. Laws are meant not to restrict but to maximize the freedom of individuals and groups without detriment to others. We often are annoyed at the traffic lights when they turn red against us but we are even more annoyed with the chaos that ensues in a power outage.
There is a place for law and for structure within our lives as Christians. But we must always keep the purpose in mind.
It calls for a great deal of honesty, integrity and a high level of real freedom, the freedom to choose what is good, what is better, what is more loving. The Gospel is not a code of laws. It provides a vision of a truly human life lived for God among other people.It is focused on relationships rather than individual actions.
Instead of being anxious what I may do wrong ("Is it a sin?"), ask rather, "Where and how can I be a more loving, caring and compassionate person this day?"