22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time –Year B – (30th August, 2009)
(Deuteronomy 4.1-2,6-8: James 1.17-18,21-22, 27: Mark 7.1-8,14-15, 21-23)
Some years ago a woman went to a priest saying that she was suffering greatly because she had this terrible need to wash her hands many times each day. Especially before going to Mass she would wash her hands. Again, the same thing before and after communion she had tissues to wipe her hands and also at the end of Mass. She really was a slave to this practice and felt that if she didn’t do it God would punish her.
This poor woman reminds us a lot of today’s gospel. The Pharisees and some of the Scribes were caught up in the same kind of practice and accused the disciples of Jesus of not washing their hands before eating and of not sprinkling themselves with water on returning from the market place. According to the Pharisees and the Scribes these things belonged to the essence of religion. Jesus came to show us that they were not and to give us a true idea of who God really is and what kind of response he is asking of us.
The Pharisees paid more attention to the outside than the inside. For them the exterior was everything. Hence their concern about outer cleanness, and neglect of what was more important – inner cleanness or cleanness of heart.
Here we see what is perhaps the major difference about what true religion is according to them and the vision of religion that Jesus came to reveal to us. He was saying that all washings and purifications are useless unless they lead to an inner purification, a conversion of our hearts.
Once I met a man about halfway through Lent who said he went to daily Mass but had stopped going to Holy Communion. When I asked him why, he said it was because on the previous Ash Wednesday he had eaten meat and only came to realise it next day. This external regulation prevented him from receiving Communion. He considered a Church regulation as being more important than receiving the Eucharist. He cannot be blamed, as he believed it was a serious sin. This is precisely why Jesus came to teach us the true meaning of religion. Reading the 4 gospels continually informs us what Jesus is telling us about true religion.
The key issue in all of this is what is the correct Image of God. Our practices will reveal to us what kind of a God we really believe in. If we focus on the externals only we may just be paying lip service to God.
I knew a woman who says vocal prayers for over half an hour every day. Sometimes when it comes to going to bed because she has been very busy during the day she hasn’t had time to say her prayers, so she kneels down and even though falling asleep she struggles through her prayers as she feels God would be displeased if she didn’t say them, instead of just saying to God ‘I am exhausted, I offer you my tiredness and exhaustion. Good night’. For her religion is quite a burden which is not what true religion is meant to be. It should be a way of responding to our loving, compassionate Father who wishes to guide us through life without loading heavy and difficult burdens on us as the Pharisees did to the Jews.
We can understand then why so many sinners, prostitutes, public sinners flocked to Jesus to hear his liberating message. He told them clearly that what mattered before God were not all these external practices. Most were unnecessary and in fact, kept people away from God. The essential was to love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbour as oneself. Anything not leading to these was not God’s way.
In many ways Jesus is reminding us that our religion has to be better than mere externals. It’s really about an inner conversion, calling us to a change of heart where necessary. It’s about deepening our personal relationship with Jesus, with God. This means placing our trust in him as completely as we can. This a great gift to ask God for.
For me the easier part of my religion is celebrating Mass and praying. Forgiving those who hurt me or living in community with people who have another way of seeing things which are equally valid is not always easy. All of you who are married know this. Life is not always easy and enjoyable.
Jesus’ message today is very simple and clear, though not always easy. Do our religious practices or lifestyle lead to a greater loving service of our families and neighbours? Do they lead to forgiving our enemies, help us to be non-judgmental etc? Do they, above all, help us to come to an ever deeper awareness that God is our loving Father and will give us all the gifts we need to make us happy, free and at peace. So for you and me here this morning where is Jesus speaking to us? Where are we unfree? What practices from childhood, family, Church still enslave us? What church traditions did we grow up with that do not give us peace, joy and help us to come to love God and our neighbours better?
True cleanliness consists in putting the Word of God into practice, a word of encouragement or a deed of love for others when it is possible even at the expense of one’s own comfort. Let us ask God’s help.
Jesus tells us that we should wash our hands of anything which prevents us from making the life of our neighbours easier or better especially the poor, the widows and orphans as St.James tells us in the second reading today.
“Lord Jesus, help us to let go of any external practices which do not lead to interior conversion and to a more loving service of You and of our neighbour. Amen”.
(Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA. 25th August, 2009)