Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; James 1:17-18,21-22,27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
As children we were told always to wash our hands before meals. Nowadays we’re much more conscious of the need for cleanliness to avoid spreading diseases. Cleanliness is a matter of practical common sense, simple hygiene. Removing the grime was even given a religious spin with the maxim, “cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Jesus wasn’t knocking that. Nor was He attacking the idea that none of us is fit to enter the presence of the All-Holy God. In comparison with Him we are all spiritually unclean. We are ungodly, unclean, to the extent that we sin. The Jews expressed this sense of unworthiness by laws about washing. We Catholics do the same thing at Mass, at the ‘Lavabo,’ when the priest says, “Lord, wash away my iniquity and cleanse me of my sin.” These laws about washing were not a question of removing physical dirt but ritual uncleanness.
And they have another value. As these laws were handed on from one generation to the next they helped to give the Jews a recognizable identity. This point is made in the song about tradition in the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.” We Catholics value traditions and customs, which give us a recognizable identity. When you see someone making the sign of the cross you can be pretty certain he’s a Catholic. He will do that before competing in a sport. We’re encouraged to say grace before meals, even when dining out. This gesture expresses our dependence on God and our gratitude for His gifts. These customs are important in reminding ourselves and other people of our religious identity. If we lose our traditions we can lose our identity.
So why did Jesus and His disciples fail to keep the laws about washing before meals? Far from trying to abolish God’s Law He wanted to restore its true meaning and purpose. This was necessary because over the centuries this had become obscured. Religious legislators had become over-zealous in defining how the general Laws God had given His people should be applied to every possible situation. God’s will had become lost among the mass of detailed human rules, which few could know and therefore observe. Everyone else was dismissed as an ignorant sinner.
Jesus wanted to get back to basics. He cut through the forest of minute rules and regulations and revealed the whole purpose of God’s Law. This was to protect and foster love for God and each other. Good law should provide a framework in which love can grow. Bad law stifles real love.
Jesus provoked this confrontation to provide Him with an opportunity to get a true understanding of the kind of cleanliness that is necessary for us to have a true relationship with God –the kind of uncleanness that damages that relationship. This has little or nothing to do with ritual physical cleanliness, whether that be of our bodies or our cooking utensils. Still less should we make a display of meticulously observing such traditions. We may impress other people, but certainly not God.
Inner purity is far more important than outward cleanliness. What really matters is the way we think, our inmost desires and longings. These lead to the way we behave. With dirty hands we can have a good relationship with God –but not with a dirty mind. That’s not confined to lustful thoughts and desires, but includes malicious, spiteful longings, a refusal to apologize or forgive, an arrogant contempt for other people. It’s far more worthwhile and demanding to keep a guard on our thoughts and desires than to be scrupulous in washing our hands and cooking utensils.
But before we Catholics become too smug and self-righteous we should ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions. Have we always got our priories right? Does the way we behave in our daily lives contradict the faith we profess as ‘practicing Catholics,’ who regularly come to Mass? Do we make being a meticulous perfectionism a substitute for being perfect? Do we make a hypocritical display of outward respectability while being rotten inside?
In today’s Gospel Jesus helps us to understand the kind of cleanliness that’s essential to our having a good relationship with God. That’s inner, not external purity. Only in this sense is cleanliness next to godliness.
By Fr. Isidore Clark O.P.