Mark 7: 1–8, 14–15, 21–23
Today’s gospel reading introduces a familiar theme concerning religious observance. The Pharisees were a group of very observant Jews whose very name means in Hebrew the “separated ones.” They were declared different because they were so meticulous in their concern for even the finest details of the Mosaic Law. In fact, they even added prescriptions to this religious Law which, according to Jesus, made it burdensome and thus compromised its very purpose, which was to liberate also from the bondage of scrupulosity and spiritual pride.
This is what Jesus means when he speaks of their “human traditions” which have distorted the Law.
Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees, not because he undervalues the Jewish Law, but because he understands that this Law is primarily about love and freedom, and that its ritual elements are all subordinate to this primary concern. The danger in all ritual observance is that it can foster pride and lead to a sense of superiority in contrast to those who seem less observant. The result is self-righteousness and a tendency to be judgmental in regard to others.
Jesus does not condemn ritual observance, which today would mean frequenting the sacraments and devotion
to prayer. What he does condemn is a religious observance that is limited to the external aspects and does not include that for which the rituals exist, namely, conversion of one’s heart from pride and self-centeredness to loving concern and compassion for others. Since this kind of conversion is a gift from God, there is no reason for pride in achieving it.
In our secularized world, many are not concerned at all about either ritual observance or conversion of heart. When things are going well, there seems to be no need for God, much less religious observance. This gospel message may seem irrelevant to such as these. However, reality will inevitably place all of us in a situation of need and, when that happens, we can only hope that we have the good sense to turn to God with humility and trust.
The gospel speaks directly to those of us who are in fact serious about the requirements of religious observance. For us, the Pharisees serve as clear examples of the grave danger of careful but superficial observance. We may be scrupulously concerned with all kinds of pious practices, some indeed of our own devising. But at the same time we may be seriously lacking in compassion and forgiveness. We may very well be, like the Pharisees, self-righteous and judgmental. Such a situation provides us with the illusion of virtue but it is in fact far removed from the deep personal conversion preached by Jesus.
Conversion of the heart means that we have discovered that all our goodness comes from the love of God for us. This leads to genuine prayer of praise and gratitude as well as a real yearning to share this gift with others. It is such persons who will excel in generosity and tolerance and thoughtfulness. And in their praise and gratitude they will truly fulfill the ideals of the divine Law.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.