Our first reading this morning from Deuteronomy is taken from a speech which Moses gives to Israel before they enter the Promised Land. Moses tells the people,

‘You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.’ (Deut 4:2)

This salutary advice refers to a common religious problem, one which the Pharisees and their successors the Rabbis found hard to comply with. They would argue that they were not creating new law, but merely commenting upon the old, and exploring its richness. There is, however, a very fine line between the two.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Over the last year and a half we have become more conscious than ever of the value of good hygiene; hand-washing has become headline news. Over 200 years ago, John Wesley wrote a sermon ‘On Dress’ stating: ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’. This proverb has found its way into the common speech and the ‘collective unconscious’. But while it is good advice, it is not quite what the Pharisees are complaining about in this morning’s Gospel reading. 

The previous story in Mark’s Gospel is that of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, so food-related matters are on the Pharisees’ mind. They are on the lookout for any minor infringement: something to quibble about, an excuse to attack Jesus. 

‘And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”’ (Mk 7:5)

The point that is being made is that the disciples are washing their hands, they are being hygienic, but they are not conforming to a higher level of ritual purity. The Pharisees are calling out what they see as a failure on the part of the disciples, and especially Jesus as their teacher, to conform to a man-made standard of priestly purity. In the eyes of the Pharisees, they are not holy enough.

In reply to their criticisms, Jesus says:

‘“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”’ (Mk 7:6-8)

Jesus quotes the Greek text of Isaiah (29:13) to make His point. Religious laws are a means by which humanity is sanctified, and God is honoured. They are not an end in themselves. The Pharisees are so concerned with the correct interpretation of religious minutiae that they can no longer see the wood for the trees: they have lost sight of the bigger picture. This approach neither honours God, nor sanctifies humanity. Indeed it drives a wedge between God and His people.

Instead, Jesus offers profound moral teaching to the people about what really matters:

‘And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”’ (Mk 7:14-15 & 21-23)

Rather than parading one’s religion as a pious façade, Jesus teaches people to pay attention to their interior life. What we think and feel affects both who we are and how we live our lives. Jesus is mindful of God’s revelation to Samuel:

‘for the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ (1Samuel 16:7)

Rather than focussing on outward aspects (like the Pharisees), Jesus reminds us that our inward thoughts are usually where the real problem lies. Thoughts can turn into actions and become habits which form character. The Pharisees are in effect encouraging a thin veneer of correct behaviour, appearing to do the right thing, while covering up any thoughts and intentions that do not promote human flourishing. Jesus wants honesty, where what you see is what you get. As with much of His teaching, it is very simple in theory, and much harder in practice. We all aspire to what Our Lord teaches, but we often struggle to live it out. 

This is why faith cannot just be a personal matter. We live in community, and as a community we can help and support each other as we try to live out our faith together. We find encouragement to do this in this morning’s reading from the Letter of James. The apostle reminds us of the goodness and generosity of God, and the fact that we are created by Him, made in His image.

James encourages Christians to put their faith into practice:

‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’ (James 1:22)

These words echo those of Jesus in the Gospel. People should in all gentleness and humility both listen to the word of God and do what it says. As Christians, our thoughts and words and actions proclaim the truth that Christ died to save us from our sins, and that He rose again that we might have new life in Him. Faith needs to be real and concrete, lived out in the world in loving action.

As we try to live out our faith, in our homes and community, we can only do this together, supporting each other. We also need to be gentle and generous when we fail, as we inevitably will.  Thankfully we do not need to rely upon our own strength, but upon the love and mercy of God. Then we can be built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory, which proclaims His love and truth to the world. We are called to live lives of forgiveness and sacrificial love which build up, as opposed to being bitter, judgemental and blind to our own faults. We should not be eager to point out the sins of others. Instead, clothed in the humility of our knowledge of our need of God, His love and mercy, let us come to Him. Let us be fed by Him, and healed and restored by Him. Let us live lives which speak of the power of His kingdom, so that the world may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Pharisees question Jesus – James Tissot

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