The statutes and decrees [Deuteronomy 4:1] which Moses taught the people to observe were God’s gift to his people, a sign of God’s special closeness to them in the regular routine of their daily lives. The Torah challenged the people to become wise and intelligent enough to observe it, and so serve as a witness to the nations. In contrast to superficial “spiritualities,” that demand relatively little (and accordingly give little in return over the long-term), the conscientious observance of God’s Law was intended to enable one to go the distance, so to speak, to transform every aspect of daily life into an experience of God’s presence – giving meaning and purpose and structure to the regular routines of daily life. In the words of ancient Jewish scholars, “We must come out of Egypt every day.” In other words, life is one long Exodus experience, through which God guides us by his commandments.
For this reason, for centuries before Jesus – and for centuries since, down to our own troubled time – faithful Jews have observed not only the 613 laws explicitly listed in the Bible, but a host of other observances designed to shore up the fundamentals of the Law. In times of persecution, this so-called “Fence around the Law” could call forth great heroism – as in the case of a Rabbi, imprisoned by the Romans, who used his limited supply of drinking water to observe the rules regarding hand-washing, even at the risk of dying of thirst.
So why the big battle over hand-washing in today’s Gospel [Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23]?
Nowadays, we are encouraged to wash our hands all the time. The ancients were not indifferent to hygiene, but our uniquely modern, secular obsession with physical health was emphatically not their issue.
The Pharisees, let us remember, were the faction in 1st-century Judaism that aspired to the most intense degree of religious observance, while combining that with life in society – unlike, for example, others who went off to live an ascetic life in the desert. The Pharisees in Jesus' time promoted a day-to-day spirituality. They sought to make the Law come alive in daily experience, by relating its commandments to various spheres of life – living an active, involved life but remaining (as St. James says in today’s 2nd reading) unstained by the world .
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were revered for their zeal and dedication. It’s likely that Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on much more than they disagreed. Jesus obviously received - and accepted - dinner invitations to Pharisees’ homes. Yet, the Gospel reports that Jesus also had some very harsh words for the Pharisees.
At Mount Sinai, according to the book of Exodus, God had instructed Moses to tell the Israelites: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” In their desire to build a “Fence around the Law,” the Pharisees (who, like Jesus himself, were, of course, laymen, not Temple priests) had apparently adopted the stricter rules of ritual purification that applied primarily to the priests - thus taking seriously the OT’s image of all Israel as in some special sense a priestly people. The evangelist, trying to explain all this to his 1st-century Gentile Christian audience, emphasized that this tradition of the elders represented a human addition to God’s commandments. One reason why this story was told may have been because of ongoing concern about how to assimilate Gentile converts into the originally all-Jewish Christian community. The account clearly portrays Jesus as a higher authority than the Pharisees when it comes to the interpretation and application of what God commands as opposed to merely human custom.
Identifying what is essential to living an authentic Christian moral life, sorting that out from the human and cultural envelope within which we inevitably receive it, is – always has been, and will always remain – a constant challenge for as long as the good news of Jesus brings new people from every nation, culture, and language into his Church.
On the other hand, creating and maintaining a cultural envelope within which one can live a moral life also remains essential. Ultimately, what we do does matter, lest we delude ourselves, as James warned us against in today’s 2nd reading [James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27]. Neither Jesus nor his disciples would have lived the lives they lived or died the deaths they did, if they had believed that anything goes. If anything, Jesus actually challenged his hearers to an even more demanding moral standard. Listen to the list of sins Jesus warned against: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. (That last one is my favorite. Imagine if we all gave up folly!)
The Pharisees’ problem was that, while the Law was supposed to be a special sign of God’s closeness, here was God himself present in Jesus, but the experts in the law were just not getting it, were completely missing the point.
In Jesus, God has become present to transform us into the priestly people which the Law was meant to signal, to turn us around, to turn our entire lives around, to authentic, life-long, day-in, day-out discipleship – or, as James more poetically expressed it, that we might be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 2, 2012.