02 September. 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Deut 4:1-2,6-8. Moses urges the people to heed God’s words and observe them diligently; this is their source of life and wisdom.
Jm 1:17ff. It is not enough to listen to the word of God. We must put it into practice. St. James gives concrete examples of what this means.
Mk 7:1-8ff. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of substituting human regulations for the law of God, so that their worship of God has become mere lip-service. Homily Ideas:
In ancient times burial was rarely permitted within the walls of a city, while one of the commonest places for tombs was by the side of public roads. You can see a great number of these latter, still bearing their inscriptions, after close on 2,000 years, just outside Rome, along the Appian Way leading towards Naples. A particular variant on this was that, just before the Feast of Passover, in Palestine, the roads to Jerusalem were thronged with pilgrims coming to celebrate this great annual feast. But, according to the Mosaic Law, anyone who touched a dead body, or came into contact with a tomb, became automatically unclean, and was thereby debarred from attending the ceremonies of Passover in Jerusalem. To prevent such a disaster it became a Jewish custom to whitewash all wayside tombs in advance of the Feast, so that they became more conspicuous, thus easier to avoid. So in the Spring sunshine these tombs stood out, sparkling white, and almost lovely, alhough within they were full of decaying bodies or bones, whose touch would defile.
According to Jesus, that was precisely what the Pharisees were like, whited sepulchres, devout men who seemed intensely religious in every way, but looked down with contempt on those they regarded as sinners. The name Pharisees means “separated ones,” a group who distanced themselves not just from gentile sinners, but also from lax Jews whom they deemed less observant of the Law. With haughty arrogance they dismissed such people as “a rabble that do not know the Law.” In today’s Gospel we see how the Scribes and Pharisees had come to hear Jesus, but instead of listening to what he had to say they just began to criticise the behaviour of his disciples. It was the age-old tactic of lowering a man’s credibility by disparaging his friends.
The charge against the disciples was that they were eating without having first washed their hands, and so were breaking the ancient Jewish traditions. This typified the Pharisees’ air of self-righteousness, and was based not on any interior, personal relationship with God, but from purely human customs. This is not to say that all Pharisees were bad or immoral. Some, like Nicodemus, were sincere searchers for the truth. But there is nothing harder for a good man than to avoid being proud of being good, and once pride intervenes, his goodness is tarnished, no matter how sincere he feels. There was always the possibility that in attempting to be perfect in every little detail of the Law the Pharisee could end up as a bigoted legalist, or indeed as a violent zealot. This is not simply a Christian verdict on the Pharisees, but rather that of the Jews themselves. For the Talmud cites seven different types of Pharisee, only one of them truly good. So when Jesus condemned the Pharisees as whited sepulchres, many of those listening would have agreed with him.
His warning holds a message also for each of us, to look inwards into the depths of our own souls. Deep within us God has written his Law, and it is our honour and duty to obey it, as we see it in our conscience. We will be judged according to the way we behave, based on what in our hearts we believe to be right and true and proper. “It is from within,” Jesus tells us today, “that evil arises.” He wants us to look beyond current opinion, the confrontations and problems of our own time, and strive for greater purity of heart. Steer clear of stupid conflicts and from slavery to convention and taboos, he says, and open up to the Holy Spirit’s word of life.
Christianity and Pharisaism
This Sunday’s readings bring out the differences between the two great branches of Judaism which emerged from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.: Christianity and Pharisaism. The main difference hinges around the place of Law in each system. To a large extent Christianity gave to Jesus the central position that the Law, their beloved Torah, had for the Pharisees. For instance much of what was said about a personal wisdom in the Old Testament, which was applied to the Torah in the later books of the Bible and in Intertestamental Literature, was applied to Jesus in the New Testament (e.g. Jn 1:2-3.)
However, it would be wrong to think of this love for the Law as mere legalism. For the Jews, the Torah was a personal thing, there before the world began, whose advice God took when God resolved to create the world:
The Torah was the basis and foundation of the universe that each faithful Jew had received as a priceless gift to guide and direct his way, no matter where he lived or what his occupation (Sean Freyne, The World of the New Testament.) The great insight of the Pharisees, an insight shared by Jesus, was to insist that the presence of God was not only to be experienced in the Temple but was available to everyone in his or her everyday life and business. The only difficulty for them was that since God was the Holy God one needed to be holy to meet that presence; and holiness at that time included ritual cleanliness. It was for this reason that they put so much emphasis on such things as “the washing of cups, pots and bronze dishes.” I vividly remember once going into a Jewish kitchen in a hostel in Israel and being nearly blown out of it for putting my hand on a jug that had been made ritual clean. It is easy to see how legalism is perhaps the inevitable consequence of such an emphasis.
But Christianity has not been immune from legalism either, so perhaps a homily on today’s readings could concentrate on the way in which all of us can narrow down original, beautiful religious insights, such as the Jews had of the Torah, into the mere fulfilment of obligation. The reason we do this is that we search for security in religion instead of being opened up to the demands of the “pure, unspoilt religion” which the second reading today demands of us.
First Reading: Book of Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.
You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
Second Reading: Epistle of St. James 1:17-18, 21-22
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)
So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”