This reflection was offered by ALM Carol, based on these texts:
Deuteronomy 4. 1-2, 6-9 Moses Commands Obedience
Mark 7. 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 The Tradition of the Elders
What image comes to your mind when you think of someone or something that’s really clean inside and out? For me it is the image of a baby/child at their Baptism. They are brought to the font with a clean heart and are baptised with Holy Water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Traditionally the Parents and Godparents make the vows for the child until they are old enough to come in faith and commit to God at confirmation. Traditions, faith, commitment from the heart, from the inside.
The Pharisees and teachers of the Law, in today’s Gospel reading, desired to appear clean inside and out before God because of their outward actions and appearances. Earlier in Mark, the same teachers criticised Jesus and His disciples for not keeping “all the traditions of the elders” and Jesus, quoting Isaiah, said, “These people honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
The key verse in our Gospel today is ‘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.’ It’s what’s inside that counts, what’s in the heart. I want you to remember that the Lord urges us to put our faith in him and in him alone. Today we think about the difference between religious customs/traditions and faith.
Our Gospel says, “The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were ‘unclean,’ that is, unwashed.” “So, the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?’” It’s not so easy for us to understand what their gripe was. For us, this kind of criticism seems ridiculous. But to the Jew, to eat with unwashed hands was considered a serious offense against God and his laws. Laws about what was “clean” and what was “unclean” were regarded as holy laws that made a man clean or unclean in the sight of God. These religious people kept such laws as a matter of life or death. A Pharisee would rather die than break one of these “clean” and “unclean” laws. They wanted to uphold what God had commanded them regarding what was “clean” and “unclean” in the Bible. We cannot simply dismiss these religious people and their laws and their criticisms of Jesus’ disciples as nonsense.
God’s Word helps us to “define” what is pleasing and what is displeasing to Him. He graciously gives us His Word so that by it we may gain wisdom and understanding. And He warns His followers – including you and me- not to “add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.”
Jesus himself was the new beginning. Jesus was building a church not based on customs and traditions and rules and regulations and laws. He was building a church based on faith in him. His church would be built on his death and resurrection, on the glorious forgiveness and cleansing that comes through his blood, shed on the cross. And his church would have one law— “Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself.” In order to build this kind of church, Jesus had to focus on the inner person—the heart.
While the Pharisees lived by their own traditions and taught the customs and traditions of the Jewish church, Jesus on the other hand — was teaching something else altogether— He taught that people ought to live by faith in God. While they stressed the importance of tradition— Jesus stressed the importance of faith— and of love and hope and of seeking God and his kingdom. Jesus was not interested in teaching his disciples traditions— Jesus understood that people want to know God and how to make things right with God. Jesus understood that people were longing to be delivered from the burdens of their own guilt and shame, and the overpowering sins that plagued them. They wanted God’s forgiveness for their souls— not how to dress or walk or wash or how many times to pray. Jesus came to make the burdens of our hearts lighter not heavier. Most importantly, Jesus taught people to come to him by faith, in rags or riches with a true heart and mind.
Consider our religious traditions – which imagine that God prefers our music, our hymns, our liturgies, our organisations and our ways of doing things. The passage today is a caution to us not to allow these things to get in the way of our serving Christ and following him.
Consider our hearts – as we can see, the lesson today is not just about Jesus being critical of tradition, Jesus is critical of anything, including the Old Testament Laws, which prevented people from surrendering their hearts to him.
The world has never been an easy place in which to live out the Christian faith. The Christian is in a minority and is surrounded by people who will not be seeking to be obedient to the very strict and demanding lifestyle which Jesus proposes. Our moral codes are not going to coincide with many of the people that we meet and our proposals for the lives of ourselves and our families, our children, are going to be out of step with many of the major influences which are exerted upon us and them
So, we need to ask ourselves to what extent we are prepared to allow ourselves to be challenged by that dreadful list of sins which Jesus gave. It is no use pretending that the world is divided into good people and bad people, we all have hearts which can produce bad things. We just need to be mindful and cultivate good lives which show our Christian faith.
The teaching of Jesus is that true obedience to God is something which comes from the heart and not from a ritualistic adherence to practices, laws and regulations, no matter how much we like what we are used to. In the passage from Mark today, we see this in practice as a debate ensues over what people should do before they eat a meal. Jesus wanted to move people away from just rituals to consider the commitment of mind and heart.
Each day in our Peregrini Prayer we end with the sentence “God of grace and glory give us the mind, the heart, and the strength to live for you.” In communion later we say “Through him we offer thee our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of thy Spirit to live and work to thy praise and glory.”
In summary: It doesn’t matter what we wear, what we look like, what we eat, clean hands or not. What is in the heart, how we live our daily lives, how we walk each day with God, how we spread the good news and our total commitment to faith and trust in God that really matters. Clean inside and out. Amen
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