On the Gospel of Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.
In this week’s Gospel Jesus is criticizing the scrupulous rules and regulations of the Pharisees. At the time of Jesus a lot of ritual customs had developed within Judaism. Examples are the ritual baths in which people completely immersed themselves before participating in religious rituals. This was not for the sake of hygiene but formed part of a ritual observance. Other examples are given by St Mark e.g. washing the arms up to the elbow, or sprinkling themselves before eating if returning from the market. When it is said that the disciples ate with unclean hands it is not that their hands were physically dirty, but that they didn’t observe the proper ritual. While ritual observances are not in themselves bad, and cleaning is especially good for hygienic purposes, the rituals had become an end in themselves; observance had the focus of religious practice without any connection with the original meaning of the ritual.
Ritual observances are not meant to be an end in themselves but a way to communion with God. The observances which Moses gave, as in the first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, are not purely for the sake of obeying God. By them the people of Israel demonstrate their wisdom and understanding in the way they live their lives. Moses does not command mere external adherence to the letter of the law but a deeper internal observance. They are to be kept in a way that brings the people closer to God, a way that brings their lives more in conformity to His.
This closeness to God does not become visible through external behavior alone, but by an internal conversion of the heart. External behavior is a reflection of the internal conversion; an unmistakable and irresistible change which people notice. This is central in Jesus’ teaching, and in this Sunday’s Gospel He once more points out that it is not from external things that a man becomes unclean, but from within, from the heart.
So the message is that external observance alone is inadequate. I must be accompanied by a real living of the Gospel. Keeping up appearances is not going to change our lives and it even can have the adverse effect of making religion a burden. Rather God is calling us to communion with Him. He is calling us to an intimate friendship. God gave us commandments to help us to become His friends and accept the invitation which God gives us. These commandments are not mere ritual observances but are much more, they are the recipe God has given us to discover how to become truly happy; to live life to the full.
St James points out in the second reading that God made us His children by giving the message of the truth. We need to listen to the Word of Truth which speaks in our heart, and do what it tells us. It is the Truth that leads us to freedom. Only by hearing this whisper, will we discover that the commandments from God do not limit our freedom, but instead set us truly free.