Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
We return today to St. Mark’s Gospel after the past weeks of hearing St. John’s account of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist. From now on in Mark’s Gospel, we observe the increasingly angry attacks which the Pharisees make on Jesus. Jesus retaliates, calling them hypocrites because they do not admit to themselves how they have distorted God’s covenant. They turn God’s Word into a set of exaggerated legal restrictions. They are blind guides leading the blind, both ending up in a ditch; this is what Jesus tells them in the parallel passage of Matthew’s Gospel. Instead of remaining open to God, they pride themselves on pseudo-knowledge and Jesus has no use for them. They are in bad faith, sinning against the Holy Spirit.
The whole issue of ritually unclean cups and kettles and hands doesn’t apply to our lives today. You will not even find a trace of this encounter in St. Luke’s Gospel. Luke was born a Greek and his audience were gentiles, not Jews, with no concern for debates over the Mosaic Law. St. Paul, who had been a Pharisee, criticized Judaizing trouble-makers in the Christian community, upsetting converts with their scruples. We are dealing with issues that pertained only to Matthew and Mark’s Jewish-Christian readers.
Then, how does this Gospel apply to us today? I believe that it is still important. Both Matthew and Mark quote from Isaiah: Their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me. The Pharisees would not apply those frightening words to themselves. Their dedication to God was a sham. This is precisely what we need to be concerned about.
What do I have of the Pharisee in me? Am I, too, guilty of twisting what God wants of me to avoid what God truly asks of me? What is it that God asks of me? Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
We know what God asks of us. In some ways it’s much easier to make rules for myself about how I should behave, than it is to act with a disregard for myself and with real concern for the other person. That other person could be God, a generous benefactor, an obnoxious neighbor or even a wrongful accuser; it doesn’t matter. Jesus is explicit as to how we should behave: Leave your gift at the altar and go first to be reconciled to your brother–or sister–and then come and offer your gift. What don’t I understand about that?