Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: Clean hands, dirty hands

Dirt is matter out of place. A farmer does not call the fertile soil that nurtures her soybean crop “dirt.” But that same soil tracked by kids across the kitchen linoleum is definitely dirt, decidedly matter out of place. That simple fact reminds us that human preoccupation with purity and cleanliness is not so much about hygiene as it is about creating a sense of order.

Sep 02, 2018

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)
Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6b-8
James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27 Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15

Dirt is matter out of place. A farmer does not call the fertile soil that nurtures her soybean crop “dirt.” But that same soil tracked by kids across the kitchen linoleum is definitely dirt, decidedly matter out of place. That simple fact reminds us that human preoccupation with purity and cleanliness is not so much about hygiene as it is about creating a sense of order.

And that helps us understand the interest of the Pharisees in purity, in keeping clear the borders between clean and unclean in the management of space, things, and human behaviour. One of the glories of the Torah, celebrated in today’s reading from Deuteronomy, is that the Mosaic laws covered all of life and integrated the ordinary business of civic life and household management with the worship of God. Thus all the details of one’s life, properly ordered, were part of living out the covenant of one’s relationship with God. It was inevitable that the human passion for order, so often expressed in the separation of the clean from the unclean, should become an important part of this living of the divine Law.

And therein lay a danger in the Law: the focus on external purity of surfaces and behaviour could itself become disordered and threaten the whole point of the Law — right relationships among people and between them and their God. It was an ancient problem, addressed often by the prophets; and now in this Sunday’s Gospel we hear Jesus join those prophetic voices, indeed quoting one of them (Isaiah), in calling people back to the basics. What Jesus says about a pure heart being more important than clean hands parallels exactly what he says in the Sermon on the Mount about attending to one’s lust and anger.

To drive his point home with his disciples, Jesus dares to draw an earthy analogy from their experience of digestion and defecation (missing from the Lectionary reading):

Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine? … But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy [ophtholmos poneros, literally “evil eye”], blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile (Mark 7:18-23)., -- By Prof Fr Dennis Hamm, SJ


Thoughts from the Early Church

“You forget the commandment of God and cling to human traditions.” (Mk:7:8)

The Pharisees claimed that the traditions of their elders safeguarded the law, but in fact it contravened the law Moses had given. By saying: “Your merchants mix water with the wine,” Isaiah shows that the elders mixed their watery tradition with God’s strict commandment.

In other words, they enjoined an adulterated law which went against the law, as the Lord also made clear when he asked them: “Why do you transgress God’s commandment for the sake of your tradition?”

By their transgression they not only falsified God’s law, mixing water with the wine, but they also set against it their own law, called to this day the Pharisaic law. In this their rabbis suppress some of the commandments, add new ones, and give others their own interpretation, thus making the law serve their own purposes.

Their desire to justify these traditions kept them from submitting to God’s law that taught them about the coming of Christ. Instead, they even found fault with the Lord for healing on the sabbath, which was not forbidden by the law, for in a sense the law itself healed by causing circumcision to be performed on the sabbath.

On the other hand, they found no fault with themselves for breaking God’s commandment by their tradition and the Pharisaic law just mentioned, or for lacking the essence of the law, which is love for God.

That this is the first and greatest commandment, the second being love of our neighbour, the Lord taught by saying that the whole of the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

He himself brought no greater commandment than this, but he renewed this same commandment by bidding his disciples love God with their whole heart, and their neighbour as themselves.

Paul also says that “love is the fulfillment of the law.” When all other charisms fail, faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of all is love. Knowledge is of no avail without the love of God, nor is understanding of mysteries, faith, or prophecy. Without love all are vain and profitless.

Love on the other hand perfects a person and one who loves God is perfect both in this world and the next, for we shall never stop loving God — the longer we gaze upon him the more our love for him will grow. --Irenaeus (c. 140-200)

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