Today we hear very often about the need for frequent hand washing as a deterrent to the spread of swine flu. I could not help but think of this as I read the gospel message for today. The washing of hands provided the occasion for controversy between Jesus and the Pharisee.
Just as the washing of hands is today viewed as a way to cleanliness and as a deterrent swine flu, so in the days of Jesus the washing of hands was intended to promote cleanliness. The Jewish people knew that the washing of their hands was both important and necessary. Since many of the people spent most of the day outdoors they got their hands dirty. But for the Pharisees the washing of hands also signified ritual purity before God. And it is on the matter of ritual purity that Jesus confronts this Pharisee.
On this occasion Jesus sits down at the dining table without washing his hands. At least he did not wash his hands in the presence of the other diners. He may well have washed shortly before his arrival at the home of the Pharisee. But as this reading makes clear, what amazed the Pharisee was not whether the hands of Jesus were clean or dirty, but rather his failure to observe the ritual washing ceremony. Jesus knew the innermost thoughts of this Pharisee, and he knew the hypocrisy of the man. This man was more concerned with the external ritual than he was with purity of heart and love of God. Jesus likens him to a cup that is clean on the outside but filthy on the inside. The cup symbol reminds me of a story I once read about a home where all the furniture appeared clean and sparkling but where piles of dust and dirt lay underneath the beds and easy chairs. The exterior was clean but not the interior. Jesus asks the man how he can purify the outside (the hands) while on the inside (the heart) there is dirt and evil. He then poses the most telling question of all. "Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside?" To which the Pharisee has no response.
I think that as we read this gospel we should be concerned about the purity of our heart. God certainly isn't telling us that washing our hands is a bad thing. Nor is he telling us that cleanliness is not important. But God is telling us that the purity of our heart (the inside) is very important. In this reading I think that God is speaking to us and asking us to examine ourselves. We need to ask ourselves whether we are hypocrites like the Pharisee, concerned mostly with external things. Or whether we are truly concerned about our interior life and the love of God. It seems to me that this reading makes very clear what God expects of us. It poses for us the following questions: Can I do what God wants and expects of me? Can I love and serve him as I know he wants me to? In other words, am I like the Pharisee of the gospel? Or am I like the disciples of Jesus who listened and followed him?
By Tom Bannantine