The readings for this Sunday remind us of what sincere practice of religion is, especially what it means to be Christian. They also warn us against the danger of just contenting ourselves with parading external religious piety at the expense of neglecting sincerity and purity of heart. That’s leads to double life, that is, hypocrisy. Let’s open our hearts to this word so that we can live our Christian faith genuinely. Here’s the washing that pleases God…
Bible Reading Deuteronomy 4: 1–8 Psalm 15 James 1: 17–27 Mark 7: 1–23
Is Hygiene hypocrisy?
The Pharisees and the scribes remark that the disciples of Jesus don’t wash their hands, as others do, before eating. Scandal! But Jesus, strange enough, instead of responding positively to this, apparently, hygienic concern he only scolds the Pharisees and the scribes -even to the point of calling them hypocrites. Is Jesus indifferent to cleanliness?
Besides, we know too well that one of the factors that have helped to increase life expectancy is the observance of hygiene. And today we are extremely wary of germs. No wonder it’s become a recurring mom’s song to her child: wash your hands! Training a child, from early age, in observing hygiene has become important. But, is that that hypocrisy?
“washing hands” in its context
Indeed, this gospel may provoke questions, just like it may also lead to misunderstanding. That’s why it’s important to understand it in its proper context, otherwise, some people may go about eating without washing in the name of piety -arguing that it’s in the Bible. I cry, false piety! Besides, it’s murderous. As a matter of fact, the Gospel is not necessarily about washing hands, or not, before eating; neither is Jesus playing down the importance of cleanliness -certainly not! Then, what is it about?
Here we are talking about ritual washing, a traditional practice to which is attached a religious meaning. A meal is sacred as it comes from God’s bounty. And sitting down to share a meal is to sit in God’s presence. So, Jews want to purify themselves before they can sit in God’s presence. Isn’t that simply beautiful! Then, you understand it’s not necessarily a matter of washing with soap, or something of the like, in order to get rid of germs, but ritual cleansing signifying somewhat religious purity.
Unfortunately, such beautiful religious practice degenerates not only into some abuse, but also it becomes fixated on external show, neglecting its interior, profound meaning. That’s the concern of Jesus.
Hypocrisy and injustice
Jesus speaks of hypocrisy. What is it? It’s having double face, especially when someone is living in the manner contrary to the religious piety they parade exteriorly. While the Pharisees and the scribes are concerned about a certain way of washing hands as way of presenting themselves pure at meals, yet, their day to day relationships with others are tainted with judgement, scorn, hatred and various forms of injustice. They are so devoted to the purity of washing up to the elbow, yet, they care little about the impurity that accumulate in their hearts.
Besides, having fulfilled such ritual cleansing, Pharisees think of themselves so highly, as clean people, and look down upon others, especially non-Jews, as dirty dogs whom they shun to interact with. Such religious attitude does not go together with the image of God that Jesus reveals; a Father who loves all people as his children. No one is discriminated. That’s why such vain and divisive view of holiness becomes suspicious, and that’s the hypocritical purity that Jesus denounces.
Through such harsh words Jesus is trying to awaken the Pharisees, and us too, so that we can return to the essentials of our religious practice; calling us to practice our religion with sincerity in paying attention especially to the values of our faith. Rites are important, and indeed they have their place, yet, we should be careful so as not to settle just on some marginal things. In this regard, the First reading has something for us.
Deuteronomy as reminder
Deuteronomy is the second law, and here Moses is presented like the one giving the law to the people. But we know too well that this book was written a long way after Moses was dead. The need this act of giving the law came when it was realised that people started drifting from their identity and their alliance with God. So, using the authority of Moses, this teaching given as a reminder to the people about the essentials their religion and their identity as God’s people.
As Christians, we too, we may content ourselves with rituals; once I go to mass or I receive this or another sacrament, I feel I have done all there’s to be done as a good Catholic. However, it’s possible that we may go through all that religious piety in a mechanical way that unfortunately improves nothing in us. In that way, I would be washing my hands up to the elbow while my heart is full of debris. That’s why James too, Second reading, adds his voice in spelling out what a genuine religious practice is: more than just impressive religious practice that we parade, it’s important to take of the quality of our relationships especially with the little ones of our society.
How am I washing hands?
So, each one can ask oneself; what are the things that are distancing me from God and from others? How am I possibly living double life? Even though the Gospel comes in a cover of harsh words, this is nevertheless good news for us. This word comes to us today, not to condemn us, but to help us get back onto the rails of genuine followers of Jesus.
So, you can see, Jesus has no quarrels with observing hygiene; he’s only challenging us to broaden our horizons. He’s saying, hey, take care! There are other microbes around, perhaps even more serious; that is, anything in your life that poison your relationship with God and with those around you. Hence, a jet of water on your heart may be necessary.
Give your email address to be receiving new posts. You can also join our facebook group: Your Word is my Lamp (Homilies)
See other posts: