Sunday’s gospel opens with an episode which can leave us feeling a bit smug at the ridiculous extent to which some people perverted scriptural laws. But it cautions us about how not only the Pharisees and Scribes but we, too, rationalize our behaviour.
The gospel begins, Now, when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.
At this point, Mark inserts a parenthetical comment to explain for a non-Jewish audience the background of their charge. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)
So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
The larger context of this challenge to Jesus is that food laws were and remain important in Jewish culture in part because of the significant role that food had played in the history of the people. Manna was a gift from God to the Israelites escaping Egypt. Prohibitions on certain foods, such as pork or shellfish, existed. The regulations on ritual washing fit into this cultural pattern.
The Pharisees and scribes were arguing that dirt on the hands could defile, that is desecrate or contaminate, not only the food but the soul of a person who ate without washing their hands. They had combined two commands of Exodus …You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6) …and the command that priests wash their hands and feet before ministering at the altar (Exodus 30:17-21) … and extended them to all the people in the form of a command to wash before eating. Nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures did God command that people wash before meals. Their edict was not a divine law but simply a practice. They had extended a good physical hygiene practice to make it a spiritual regulation.
He (Jesus) said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ (Isaiah 29:13)
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
At this point, Sunday’s gospel skips ahead several verses. However, in the omitted sections Jesus gave an example of how people abandon the commandment of God.
Here are the ‘missing’ verses: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’… But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God) then you no longer have to do anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
Jesus said that, ‘you have misplaced your emphasis on this observance to the detriment of works of justice and charity. You have tried to rationalize your behaviour as good when its intention was not.’
Jesus then turned the tables and attacked the hypocrisy that lay just beneath the Pharisaic and Scribal charge of defilement.
Jesus called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
Think back to the feeding of the five thousand on the hillside. (We heard that gospel on July 25th) The people whom Jesus fed would have been unlikely to have been able to wash their hands before eating. When the Pharisees and Scribes attacked Jesus’ disciples for not washing, they most likely knew that Jesus had fed the crowd, since the gospels tell us (John 6) that news of Jesus’ miracle of multiplication of the loaves and fishes had spread, and that the people would not have been able to wash. Their attack on Jesus’ disciples was a proxy for an attack on Jesus. They saw him as enabling others to violate their notion of religious regulations.
Perhaps, more than being upset that Jesus’ followers had broken their rules, their motivation was jealousy that Jesus had gathered a large following. He could not be ignored.
While this gospel shows that Jesus encountered opposition and hypocrisy as well as misunderstanding about the interpretation of Hebrew scripture, it also points to a principle that might be stated as “our secrets define us.”… it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Trying to disguise self-service and jealousy as righteousness and piety was the real evil of the Pharisees and Scribes. Jesus saw clearly that their intentions were different from their virtuous words.
During one of my university courses in psychology a professor asked our class to name basic drives of human behaviour. Students volunteered the usual list of food, sex, affection, rest and some others. Then one bright person said, “rationalization”. There was a pause then people began to laugh. The professor summed up the comment neatly by saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “You’re right. We can go days without sleep, a week or more without food, years without sex, but we can’t go a day without a rationalization!” We discussed the subtle ways that we rationalize our behaviour every day and how “driven” we are to represent our actions as good or necessary, even, or especially when they are not.
I thought of this exchange when I read this scripture passage. Jesus’ words challenge us, in the same way as he challenged the Pharisees and Scribes to examine our conscience for what motivates even our apparently good acts. Is vanity part of the motive for kindness? Does hatred masquerade as a form of justice? Does envy motivate a harsh critique? Does adultery surface in the guise of human interest?
We must be careful about being smug with respect to the Scribes and Pharisees in this morning’s gospel. They are not too different from us.
One practice that Ignatius of Loyola strongly encouraged in his followers was “daily examen”. At its most basic it is a three-step review of our day that can be one way of understanding ourselves and actions. While there are many different questions one can ask and it can become more detailed, a simple form for the end of the day is to review the day…morning, afternoon and evening… or significant events throughout the day… and ask: