“Wash your hands before dinner!” is a phrase that many parents will use when calling the family to the dinner table. People hear this as a child and form a habit, many would say a good one, as they grow into adulthood. So the question might arise after hearing the Gospel from this Sunday’s liturgy, “why is Jesus so upset with the Pharisees?”
You may recall that the Pharisees and some scribes question Jesus regarding why his disciples “eat their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed hands.” On the surface it seems like a reasonable question. However as we read on we recognize that the criticism stems from an understanding of the purification traditions.
Jesus’ reaction does not come so much from a question of “washing hands” but rather how one recognizes sinfulness in one’s life. In this case, the Pharisees were equating certain purification rules or interpretations of the oral traditions on the same level as divine law and teaching. Jesus chastises the Pharisees and scribes for not recognizing the distinction. In focusing on such externals and superficial issues they fail to grasp the heart of the covenant.
So Jesus says to the crowd: “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” He then goes on to give a list of those things that, flowing from the heart of the person, are truly sinful and destructive: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”
The list of those sins that truly defile a person are based on God’s law and commands. They clearly impede or violate the law of love. Jesus teaches that discipleship demands following God’s commandments, not “human tradition.”
The first reading for Sunday’s liturgy, from the Book of Deuteronomy, speaks of the importance of God’s law. The laws established by God were instituted to help the people of the covenant to live good lives. The two-fold command of love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus says elsewhere, sums up and prioritizes the whole of the law. The particular ordinances and decrees that flow from this help to specify that two-fold command.
We see this in a particular manner with the Ten Commandments. The law symbolizes the covenant between God and Israel and is extolled as such. Following the law gives witness to the nations who “will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’”
The greatness comes from the source of the law, God. “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”
The law of love brings life. Jesus, the Word of God, leads us to know this law and shows us how to keep the law, from our heart. We have the opportunity to live this law in the basic decisions we make everyday. Receiving his word, reflecting on his word and learning about his word helps us to internalize the law of love.
As we do this, the words of St. James are a good source of encouragement and guidance: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls. Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.