Background on the Gospel Reading , Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23 Jesus teaches that it is that which comes from our hearts that defiles us.
This Sunday, our lectionary returns to Mark’s Gospel after a number of Sundays in which we heard the Bread of Life discourse from the Gospel of John. Recall that we focus on the Gospel of Mark in Lectionary Cycle B, but substitute John’s report of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes for Mark’s report of this event.
In today’s Gospel, Mark provides a significant amount of information about the Jewish observance of ritual-purity laws. Most scholars believe that Mark includes this information because his audience includes Gentile Christians who have no knowledge or experience of these laws. We can infer, therefore, that many in Mark’s community were not Jewish Christians.
In this Gospel, Mark addresses the question of which Jewish practices would also be observed in the newly emerging Christian community. This was a significant question for the early Christian Church, especially in communities that included both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity. We also hear this question addressed in the letters of Paul with regard to table fellowship. In Gospel passages such as the one today, we see the Gospel evangelists finding justification for a Christian practice distinct from Judaism in the remembrances of Jesus’ teaching and the practice of his first disciples.
Jesus first criticizes the Pharisees for putting human tradition above God’s Law. Here, Jesus is referring to the tradition of the elders, the teachings of the Pharisees, which extended the ritual-purity laws of Temple worship to everyday Jewish life. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for making this tradition equal to and as binding as the Law of Moses.
Next, Jesus comments on the meaning behind the Pharisees’ language of holiness—clean and unclean. Jesus teaches that a person is not defiled by the food that enters his or her body, but rather by sin that emerges from his or her words and actions. In this teaching, Jesus unmasks a deeper question behind the one posed to him by the Pharisees. The real issue is holiness, which is not found in external acts alone. Holiness comes from within and is evidenced in the actions and attitudes that emerge from a person’s life.
If we read today’s Gospel carefully, we will see a pattern in Jesus’ teaching method that will be repeated in the weeks ahead. Jesus’ first teaching is directed to the Pharisees who questioned him. Jesus’ words are then directed to the crowd, teaching that a person is defiled by his or her words and actions, not by the food that he or she eats. In verses omitted in today’s reading, we learn that Jesus returned home with his disciples, who in turn questioned him about what he had taught. The words we read at the conclusion of today’s Gospel are addressed to Jesus’ disciples. Mark’s narrative shows several audiences for Jesus’ teaching: his antagonists, the crowds, and Jesus’ disciples. As we see in this reading, the words to the Pharisees are often words of challenge. The teaching to the crowds is often a general, sometimes cryptic, message. With the disciples, who often misunderstand Jesus’ words, further explanation is offered about his message and its meaning.
Jesus’ words challenge us as well. In our desire to show that we are holy, we might also give too much credence to externals, following rules without thinking about the intention behind them. Jesus reminds us that we do not make ourselves holy by our actions. Rather, we become holy when we allow God’s Spirit to transform us. Our actions should be an expression of the conversion of our heart to God and to God’s ways.
Friends, the more we revere something, the more we surround it with laws. The most important thing in our lives is to be in harmony with God, and so we follow his divine law. We must, with prudence and wisdom, distinguish between the commandments of God that structure us, and fussy human traditions that distract from our relationship with him.
||All of today’s readings pertain to law. We Americans are a fairly litigious society. Lawyers are thick on the ground and many of our Founding Fathers were students of law. We have a kind of love-hate relationship with the law, like most people in history. Today’s readings offer a key lesson: whenever we reverence something, we surround it with laws. Laws protect the integrity of good things. And for the saints, the law of God is planted within their hearts.|
Gospel: Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23 You put aside the commandment of God, to cling to human traditions
The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus, and they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. For the Pharisees, and the Jews in general, follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes. So these Pharisees and scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?’ He answered, ‘It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so rightly prophesied in this passage of scripture:
This people honours me only 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.
You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.’ He called the people to him again and said, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 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. For it is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean.’
Introductory Prayer: Lord God, I come from dust and to dust I shall return. You, however, existed before all time, and every creature takes its being from you. You formed me in my mother’s womb with infinite care, and you watch over me tenderly. I hope you will embrace my soul at my death to carry me home to heaven to be with you forever. Thank you for looking upon me and blessing me with your love. Take my love in return. I humbly offer you all that I am.
Petition: Lord, give me confidence in the power of your grace.
Look at the Real Dangers: Christ feared nothing. He wasn’t afraid of Satan. He wasn’t afraid of public opinion. He wasn’t afraid of the narrow road and hard path. Even though it would cause him to sweat blood, he wasn’t even afraid to fulfill his Father’s plan for him as the Suffering Servant. Through his words and way of life, he was constantly encouraging his followers to watch out for dangers and to pray not to be put to the test. He knows that there are real dangers out there: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29). “Woe to him who scandalizes one of these little ones” (cf. Matthew 18:6). “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees” (Matthew 16:6). “Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Christ will always point out for me the real dangers that exist in my life.
I Will Not Take Them from You: Christ clearly warns us, and our own experience confirms, that God normally will not remove these dangers from our lives. These dangers will usually remain whether they be exterior — “Father, I ask not that you remove them from this world” — or interior. When St. Paul would ask Christ to remove the thorn from his side, Christ simply replies, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In the thick of these sufferings, it is hard for us to understand why God would permit them. But maybe we can find some reason in Christ’s words today. May it never be said of a Christian: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Suffering and hardship often keep our heart close to Christ.
I Will Give You the Grace to Overcome Them: Very much aware of both the internal and external dangers that would await them, Christ was not afraid to send his apostles out into the world. He sends us out as “sheep among wolves” (cf. Matthew 10:16) into a world that will “hate you as it hated me” (cf. Matthew 24:9). He distributes his divine word and precious grace to the world through us, fragile earthen vessels. Through his Vicar on Earth, he tells us, “Be not afraid.” Moreover, he expects us to produce one hundred-fold and give fruits that will last. What is the key to his confidence? The key is the humble person who is ever ready to look inwardly and purify his heart from the smallest attachment, the slightest impurity, making it an acceptable dwelling place for Christ. What…who…can separate us from the love of Christ? What is there to fear but those “evils that come from within and defile?”
Conversation with Christ: Thank you, Lord, for reminding me about the beauty of being your friend, and at the same time about the awesome responsibility that goes along with it. Please give me the generosity to live my role as your ambassador and help me to continually spread your message of love with all that I do.
Resolution: I will set aside some time today and ask Christ to help me identify any attachments to sin in my heart. I will write them down and look for concrete ways to purify my heart from them.