“You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.”
I'd like to welcome us of back from our five-week break-off from Mark’s Gospel, at which time we had a faith-journey through the Gospel of John (Chapter 6) to unravel the mystery of the Miracle (“Sign”) of the Multiplication of Five Loaves and Two Fish. Jesus multiplied the bread to feed 5000 people as “sign” of the “new Manna” that would feed the “new Israel” satisfying them spiritually on to eternal life. Jesus distinctly declared that He is this “new Manna” when He declared: “I am the Living Bread come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is My Flesh, for the life of the world” (John 6: 51). The entire teaching of Jesus was repugnant to many and a source of faith for others. This “sign” which prefigured the self-offering of Jesus on the Cross and the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist has continued to be a “sign of contradiction” and division in Christendom to this day. Even now, the question still remains: “Will you also go away?” (John 6: 67). We rely on the grace of God to answer like Peter: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the Word of eternal life” (John 6: 68).
Today we resume the Gospel of Mark (7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23), where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and some Scribes on the question of tradition and ritual cleansing. They have noticed that the disciples of Jesus are “eating with unclean hands and without washing them” (Mark 7: 2). And so they ask Jesus: “Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?” (Mark 7: 5). Let us understand the background to this question. Remember the Pharisees, whose name translates as “the separated ones” or the “separatists”, segregated themselves from others and sought to live a life of strict adherence to the dictates of the Torah. The law of Moses had prescribed rules for the cultic purity of priests, including the washing of their hands and feet before offering sacrifices (Exodus 30: 17-21) and ritual purity before sharing the sacrifice (Numbers 18: 11-13). These biblical rules applied on to priests serving at the altar. But oral tradition, developed by the Pharisees, extended them to govern all the behaviours of every Jew at every meal. In their typically puritanical attitude, they added 365 prohibitions and 248 prescriptions to the already existing 613 commandments in the Torah – talk about “heavy burdens” (Matthew 23: 4). At the time of Jesus, it was expected of all Jews to adhere to these ritualistic practices and norms. It is therefore not strange at all that they should approach Jesus to raise this question when they noticed what they perceived to be an aberration on the part of the disciples of Jesus.
But Jesus knows them more than they could ever imagine. He knows their hearts: “… humans look at the outer appearances, but the Lord sees the heart” (1 Samuel 16: 7). No wonder Jesus’ response is poignant and really shocks them that He speaks to them like that. Jesus calls them “hypocrites.” By calling them “hypocrites” Jesus is referring to their double-faced, pretentious lives. In Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 23) Jesus took a swipe at them calling them “hypocrites” severally, “blind guides”, “blind fools” and cautioned His listeners not to do what they do because “they do not practice what they preach.” This is the standard life of the Pharisees as Jesus best knows them. He then alludes to the prophesy of Isaiah to elucidate His point: “This people honours me with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations” (Isaiah 29: 13). Israel at this time of Isaiah had lost every iota of intimate relationship with God. They were engaged in mere outward formalism that lacked basic love of God. It was a religion of outward show without any internal connection.
After this, Jesus set out to correct and to teach: “You set aside the commandments of God and cling to human traditions” (Mark 7: 9). Form this statement, it is easy for us to think that Jesus totally condemns tradition per se, but that is not so. Remember tradition, as a process of handing on events of the past to the present and future generations, was a crucial tool in the early Church with regard to passing on authoritative apostolic teachings (1Corinthians 11: 2, 23; 2 Thessalonians 3: 6). Jesus was condemning merely human traditions that are not rooted in the Word of God and negate the purpose of God’s Word, not tradition per se. In 2 Thessalonians 2: 15, Paul exhorted the early Christians to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that we taught you by word and by letter.” The early Church depended largely on tradition. The formulation of the Canon of the Bible are invaluable fruits of the exercise of the apostolic tradition; and the Didache (the teaching of the apostles) has remained an unquantifiable resource of the teaching authority of the Church. The example that Jesus uses to explain His point in one of the omitted portions of this Gospel Reading is helpful for our better understanding. In verses 9 – 13, Jesus uses the Corban (or Qorban), which means an offering set aside for or dedicated to God (Leviticus 1:2), to demonstrate how the Pharisees circumvent the Fourth Commandment. Instead of supporting aged and needy parents, one who has made the Corban vow would rather fulfil his vows than support his parents as demanded by the Fourth Commandment of God. We see this among many Christians today, who pay tithes and support their pastors and wives (whom they call Daddy and Mummy) to the neglect of their needy parents. Jesus is teaching here that no human traditions and dictates should contradict the Word and the Commandments of God. We see this reflected also in our “politically correct” world of today, where human laws contradict divine laws; and where we seek more to please man rather than God.
Lastly Jesus returns to the main question and takes it beyond the scope of physical, cultic and ritual defilement to the level of moral defilement and moral purity. “Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean” (Mark 7: 15). Whereas what goes into a man simply passes through the process of digestion and is passed out; what comes out of a man is a product of his thought process and cogitation. “Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12: 34). The emphasis here is on the word “heart.” The heart is the inner depths of the person, the seat of decision and judgement. The Book of Proverbs (4: 23) cautions: “Above all else guard your heart, for therein is the source of life.” The teaching of Jesus here is indicative of the fact that ritual purity had value only as far as it pointed beyond itself to purity of the heart now fulfilled in Himself, Who is the source of all purity.
My dear friends, true religion is being true to ourselves: that we are who we are – no hypocrisy, no masks, no dual personality. Men and women who speak what they mean and do what they say. It means knowing that every law is given for our good and they are necessary for our peaceful human co-existence and for guiding us to salvation. Our response to God’s Commandments should be out of love of God and not out of fear; never for human accolades and recognition. True religion is being sensitive and responsive to the needs of our fellowmen. As St. James tells us in the Second Reading (James 1:17-18,21-22,27), religion that is pure and undefiled is: “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” This is more pleasing to God than strict adherence to mere human traditions. To have a relationship with God, that yearning and longing for God that comes from the heart, whereby one can say with the Psalmist: “Like the deer that yearns for running streams so my soul yearns for You, O Lord” (Psalm 42: 1) is a better expression of our religiosity than a life focused on ritualism and mere human traditions. It is the heart that matters; the inside is more important than the outside; the internal counts more than the external. It is the quality of the heart not the quantity of actions that makes us God’s children. May the grace of God be sufficient for us all. Amen.