Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year B

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George F. Riley, O.S.A. 
St. Thomas Monastery Villanova, Pennsylvania

Dt 4:1-2, 6-8
Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5
Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“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.”

The difference and the argument between Jesus and the Pharisees and the experts in the law are of tremendous importance, for they show us the very essence and core of the divergence between Jesus and the orthodox Jew of his time.

Originally, the Law meant two things: It meant, first and foremost, the Ten Command- ments, and second, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). Now it is true that the Pentateuch contains a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions; but in the matter of moral questions, what is laid down is a series of great moral principles which a man must interpret and apply for himself. For long the Jews were content with that.

But in the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ there came into being a class of legal experts whom we know as the Scribes. They were not content with great moral principles; they had what can only be called a passion for definition. They wanted these great principles amplified, expanded, broken down until they issued in thousands and thousands of little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible solution in life.

The scribes and Pharisees saw that the disciples of Jesus did not observe the niceties of the tradition and the code of the oral law in regard to the washing of hands before and during meals, and they asked why. Jesus began by quoting to them a passage from Isaiah 29:13. There Isaiah accused the people of his day of honoring God with their lips while their hearts were really far away. By quoting this, Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of two things.

First, he accused them of hypocrisy. The word hypocriteshas an interesting and revealing history. It begins by meaning simply one who answers; it goes on to mean one who answers in a set dialogue or a set conversation, that is to say an actor; and it finally means, not simply an actor on the stage, but one whose whole life is a piece of acting without any sincerity behind it at all. The reason is this – he believes that he is a good man if he carries out the correct acts and practices, no matter what his heart and his thoughts are like. The fundamental question is, how is a man’s heart towards God and towards his fellow men? And it in his heart there are enmity, bitterness, grudges, pride, not all the outward religious observances in the world will make him anything other than a hypocrite.

The second accusation that Jesus implicitly leveled against these legalists was that they substituted the efforts of human ingenuity for the laws of God. Cleverness never can be the basis of true religion. True religion can never be the product of man’s mind. It must always come, not from a man’s ingenious discoveries, but from the simple listening to and accepting the voice of God.

Jesus was attacking a perspective which put rules and regulations before the claim of human need. The commandment of God was that the claim of human love should come first; the commandment of the scribes was that the claim of legal rules and regulations should come first.

Jesus was quite sure that any regulation which prevented a man from giving help where help was needed was nothing less than a contradiction of the law of God.

It is in face of this that Jesus made his revolutionary statement that nothing that goes into a man can make him unclean. He was wiping out at one stroke the dietary laws for which Jews had suffered and died. No wonder the disciples were amazed.

In effect Jesus was saying that things cannot be either unclean or clean in any real religious sense of the term. Only persons can be really defiled; and what defiles a person is his own actions, which are the product of his own heart. This was new doctrine and shatteringly new doctrine.

There follows evil deeds. In Greek there are two words for evil: kakos, which describes a thing which in itself is evil, and poneros, which describes a person or a thing which is actively evil. Poneriai is the word used here. The man who is ponerosis the man in whose heart there is the desire to harm. The worst of men, the man who is doing Satan’s work, is the man who, being bad himself, makes others as bad as himself.

It is a truly terrible list which Jesus cites of the things that come from the human heart. When we examine it a shudder surely passes over us. Nonetheless it is a summons, not to a fastidious shrinking from such things, but to an honest self-examination of our own hearts.