August 29, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 30, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

"Nothing that enters one from outside can
defile that person; but the things that come
out from within are what defile." Mark 7:15
(Click here for today’s readings)

What’s wrong with washing your hands before you eat? What’s wrong with washing cups and jugs and kettles and beds? Nothing, of course. Cleanliness is next to godliness.

Jesus did not criticize the Scribes and Pharisees for doing these things. What provoked his reaction was their reference to hand washing as "the tradition of the elders" and the reference to "unclean hands."

As you know, "unclean" in the Bible is not the same as "dirty." It has to do with one’s suitability to participate in community and worship. Since a blessing was pronounced on all foods before eating, it made sense that you would not want to be "unclean" in any way.

It isn’t so different from restaurants, however informal and casual, having a policy that reads, "No shirt, no shoes, no service." In other words not observing a minimal dress code would make you "unsuitable" or, in that sense only, "unclean" with respect to partaking in a meal there. St. Peter’s in Rome has a similar dress code to help people realize that this is a place of worship, not just another tourist stop.

Jesus knew the Law. As an observant Jew, he surely observed the Law’s prescriptions about what to do and its restrictions about what not to do. So far, he and the Scribes and Pharisees could be in perfect agreement. Jesus had a quarrel with them, nonetheless, and he stated it in clear terms: "You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition." And this is why he calls them hypocrites.

To understand this matter of human tradition, we need to understand the intense respect of the Jews for the Law of Moses, the praises of which are sung in the first reading. The Scribes and Pharisees devoted much attention to "protecting" people from violating the Law. Over time, they devised secondary rules (we might call them "amendments") which would minimize the possibility of breaking the Law (we might call that the "occasion of sin.") For example, the Law says, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk." This legal expression of a humane attitude towards animals eventually became codified (perhaps not in Jesus’ time) in the practice of not eating any meat and any dairy product at the same meal, and of having separate sets of plates for dairy foods and for meat. There is certainly nothing wrong with this, but it is a "human tradition;" it is not the Law.

I know a few persons who, to my mind at least, are unable to distinguish what is important from what is not. Jesus condemned the Scribes and Pharisees for their inability or unwillingness to distinguish God’s beautiful Law from human tradition. He even goes so far as to accuse them of observing the tradition but neglecting the Law, and of interpreting the Law at times in a self-serving way.

Behind all this is the "why" of observing the Law. The implications are far reaching. They touch on personal and community prayer, our understanding of right and wrong, concern and respect for others, and much more besides.

To keep the Law because "this is the way we do things" is not necessarily bad. But isn’t it much better to do it because "this is the way we honor God"?  With this attitude, it is easier to be what St. James calls, "doers of the word, and not hearers only."

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