On this beautiful Sunday, gathered in the presence of Jesus and each other under the sky and in touch with the earth, the scripture invites us to think about purity and cleanliness. Let’s start with dirt. Just as a weed is simply a flower growing in the wrong place, then dirt is just matter out of place. A farmer does not call the fertile soil that nurtures the wheat fields “dirty.” But that same soil tracked by kids across the kitchen floor definitely makes it dirty, decidedly matter out of place. That simple fact reminds us that the human preoccupation with purity and cleanliness is not so much about hygiene as it is about creating a sense of order.
And that helps us understand the interest of the Pharisees in purity, in keeping clear the borders between clean and unclean in the management of space, things, and human behavior. We can appreciate the Pharisee’s desire for order. The story of Genesis is about God creating order from chaos. God established order by separating light from darkness, the heavens from the earth, earth from sea. God populated the world with creatures, each in their proper place. Since we are made in the image of God, we along with the Pharisees are created with a desire for order, and an abhorrence for the chaos that threatens to overcome God’s creation.
We often read about Pharisees in the Gospels, and not in a positive way. It’s not difficult to have an unflattering view of the Pharisees, as they are often lumped together with the rest of the bad guys who resisted Jesus at almost every turn and conspired to have him killed.
But, as we know from our own lives, no one is one dimensional. Life isn’t all or nothing. There was another side to the Pharisees. During the reign of Herod, they opposed him to his face and the Roman occupiers too. In the eyes of the Jews of the time, Pharisees were seen as the heroes of Jewish liberation, brave men, who helped to preserve the religious integrity of the people of God. You can see this in their name. Pharisee means ‘the separated ones’ and it reflects their desire to live pure lives, separated from the world and all its corruption. In their quest for order, the Pharisees demanded radical commitment to the Law of Moses and adherence to the practices and traditions around purity and impurity.
So, we here today have something in common with the Pharisees – namely a desire for order. Order in our lives, and in our society. This certainly means the warning Jesus has for them applies to us today. Jesus’ words are not like those of an ordinary person. Jesus speaks as God, and God’s word is eternal and effective.
Jesus knows, of course, that when the scribes and Pharisees ask why some of his disciples do not wash their hands, the question is not an innocent one. It is meant to indict Jesus. Asking why some of his followers “do not live according to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:5) is really accusing Jesus of not respecting the Law, of acting as if he believes himself and his disciples to be above the Law. And that is a pretty serious accusation.
Jesus responds with a rebuke from Isaiah (Isaiah 7:6-7), which changes the direction of the conversation: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”. That’s a real wake up call to the Pharisees, and to us as well.
Jesus condemns the Pharisees not so much for their beliefs or their practices but for their lack of integrity, the lack of cohesion between actions and true intentions. The ordered world called for by Mosaic Law is to reflect order within, not impose order from without. Only when lives are lived in a radically orderly fashion with God as the first priority is the Law observed. Purity means lives lived with physical and emotional desires ordered to correspond with needs, with thoughts ordered to reflect love of God and love of neighbor. Only then do the Pharisees, or we today, stand a chance in holding back chaos and living as God desires. The Law – with all its regulating of daily life, worship, and personal relations – is to reflect orderly hearts and not the other way around. The Law lives from inside out, not outside in.
Only too often, ancient religious tradition, long training, and hard and fast usage stamp the ground hard. The spirit no longer takes any imprint; the heart remains cool or undecided, and rarely does feeling become that passion which demands absolute earnestness. The Pharisees may have learned to follow the Mosaic Law and customs perfectly, but their hearts were not pure, their intentions not orderly. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the purification rituals, but they are a mere symbol of the far deeper interior purification Jesus offers. The washing of hands and cups and kettles is not a substitute for the interior washing that only the grace of contrition brings about.
So what about us, today? We no longer live under the Law, we live under the new covenant instituted by Jesus. Has the old Law passed away? Jesus is quite clear that he came not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill and perfect them (Mat 5:17). Not even the smallest detail of God’s Law will disappear. And as the first reading affirms, the Law was a gift from God, not to constrict or inhibit his people, but to illuminate the path of their lives.
Not only did Jesus have no intention of changing the Law or even of calling for a more lenient application; in contrast he came to require a greater perfection in observing it. Jesus came not to lower the bar but to raise it. The Pharisees did not oppose our Lord because he offered a more tolerant interpretation of the Law; it was the exact opposite. They sought to use legalistic interpretations to identify he minimum requirements while still complying with the mind of the lawgiver. They were experts in looking for loopholes. Their focus on external purity of surfaces and behavior was itself a source of disorder that threaten the whole point of the Law—the right relationships among people and between them and their God.
The message for the Pharisees, and for us here today, is that it is very easy, and very dangerous, to lose the integrity and cohesiveness between beliefs and actions. To show a proper, pure face to the world while inside not honoring God in our hearts. It means insisting on our definition of order and purity above that of God, to decide for ourselves what is or is not out of place. Dare we call God our Father while passing judgment, casting blame, and making distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them? What Jesus says about a pure heart being more important than clean hands parallels exactly what he says in the Sermon on the Mount about attending to one’s lust and anger.
So, each one can ask oneself; what are the things that are distancing me from God and from others? How am I possibly living a double life? Even though this Gospel comes in a cover of harsh words, this is nevertheless good news for us. Listen and understand the instruction the Lord has given you. This word comes to us today, not to condemn us, but to help us live as genuine followers of Jesus.