When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. —For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves.
And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy 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 as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
~ Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Jesus calls sinners to come to him and those who think themselves righteous to purify their hearts. His instructions and gestures, what he does and what he does not do, in this case not commanding the disciples to wash their hands, are meant to teach a lesson. Does he condemn piety and religious traditions? The surprising answer is no. What Jesus condemns here is merely the outward appearance of religion without any change of heart. The Pharisees kept many rules and obligations but did not use what they symbolize to transform them, namely that the law comes from the Word of God, out of love rather than desire to keep all humankind under thumb.
What is more unfortunate is that some of the Pharisees would look for loopholes in the law to avoid loving their neighbor or even taking care of their elders. In this way Jesus condemned them for merely following tradition. It was about getting away with what you could without breaking the law rather than loving God and neighbor. Some tithed and prayed out in the open but deeply lacked charity for the suffering. Outward piety and charitable acts are not wrong. However if they only reflect the outside and not a person’s heart, they become shallow displays. Acts of reverence when made with the inner disposition of reverence are wholesome before God whereas merely going through the motions is lifeless.
Jesus says “Their hearts are far from me”. Jesus doesn’t only ask for good works and proper worship. He wants our hearts. One can do many good works, assist reverently at Mass and keep the precepts of the Church without giving their heart to God. Pure religion stems from surrendering one’s heart to Christ, giving oneself over with love. Then works follow which are “pure and undefiled”. Because they are no longer doing what is merely necessary or legal- but a loving fulfillment of what the Father asks. They give to charity and help their suffering neighbor out of genuine love, seeing the image of God implanted on them. Our religious observance should not seem as obligation and burden. When we only think about rules per se, something is wrong. Religion is man’s response to God’s immeasurable love given through His Son. A saint once said “It is easy to obey when we love the one we obey.”
While the Pharisees ran the danger of adding to God’s law, modern day Christians run the risk of subtracting from it. How many go to Mass because they have to? How many meet the bare minimum? There is a crisis of minimalism in the Church today. It not only infects laypeople that only show up when they “have to” and then bolt out the door, but also priests who deliberately say Mass in a Spartan manner, stripping away what they don’t like- long as it’s valid. I once heard someone remark that they refuse to do a certain pious gesture during the liturgy because “it isn’t necessary”. Certain prayers aren’t said and devotions are ignored because they are “extra”. What a sad state of affairs! No, God doesn’t demand any special prayers or devotions but love may overflow and move a person to do extra, because it comes natural.
Love doesn’t follow the bare minimum. It is deeply touched and transformed. It has never heard the word “obligation”. How many people are scorned for receiving the sacred Host too reverently or being “old fashioned” when the groaning of their hearts is unknown? I will repeat that Jesus doesn’t condemn outward piety but only when the heart does not match the outside. This is why in another place, Jesus scolds the Pharisees for: “cleaning the outside of the cup and dish but leaving the inside full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). If we say we love Jesus enough to kneel down before the Blessed Sacrament and partake of extra devotions, we must take care to clean our own interior homes. One can go to confession every day and it means nothing without true sorrow for sin.
Many point to Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees in order to discredit belief in any religion. However, Scripture declares that true religion acceptable to God the Father, is that “which cares for the widow and orphan while remaining unstained by the world” (James 1:27). It implies a faith with no exclusion between love of God and love of neighbor. It implies a faith where no one gives by halves, one that burns brightly and doesn’t cave into social pressures. The Bible nowhere puts Jesus at odds with religion. The only conflict is between belief and practice. Recall what Jesus lamented is not that the Pharisees honored him with their lips but that they “kept their hearts far from me”.
Jesus is concerned with the heart. More than he wants our hands and our lips, he wants our heart. He bids the Pharisees come to him. He is harsh with them because they, of all people, should know and love him. He asks them to be courageous and give everything over to him- even if it means losing possessions or reputation. In the end, it is too much to ask. While some of the Pharisees did indeed convert to Christ, others conspired to have him executed. Religion becomes uncomfortable when it demands more than just money or time, when it demands the soul. Nothing less was asked since the beginning. “And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The prophets asked: “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). This is the Law par excellence and Jesus descended from heaven that we may truly learn it. He sent His Spirit upon the disciples that they may have the Law engraved upon their hearts.
When the heart and soul do not belong to God, by nature they must belong to something or someone else. The heart’s true treasure can only be God and it will restlessly float from one thing to the other until it finds him. It will encounter the restlessness of those ideas which make faith into a hardened legal system. It will encounter restlessness in ideas that tepidly insist on a minimal faith where there are barely any rules at all. Biblical religion is neither. It is meant to be no less than a love affair. Let us ponder today’s Gospel and what it asks of us. Does Jesus not caution each and every one of us: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21)?