The readings today take us back to the way God intended to work with his people. He called them together as a people and gave them the gift of his law. The law is a wisdom God shared with his people. It finds its fullness in the Ten Commandments, which is nothing other than God trying to reveal something to us about relationships.
What should our relationship with God be like? What should our relationship with each other be like? The first three commandments make it clear that we are to honor God. We are to worship him. We are to place him above all others. In our relationship with one another, we are to respect each other — particularly those who give us life. We are called to be honest with each other, to respect each other’s rights to have possessions, to respect each other’s bodies, and to respect each other’s opinions.
The Scribes and Pharisees were upset with Jesus because he allowed his disciples to break with their ritual traditions by eating with unclean hands. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees had derived over six hundred rules and regulations from the Law, all derived from the Law spelled out in the Old Testament books (Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, etc.).
The Scribes and Pharisees sent a delegation all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to bring their accusation in a face-to-face confrontation with Jesus. Jesus dealt with their accusation by going to the heart of the matter – by looking at God’s intention and purpose for the commandments. We ask ourselves: Which is more important to God – clean hands or a clean mind and heart?
Jesus explains that they void God’s command because they allow their hearts and minds to be clouded by their own notions of what is true religion. Jesus accuses them specifically of two things. First of hypocrisy. Like actors, who put on a show, they appear to obey God’s word in their external practices while inwardly they harbor evil desires and intentions.
Secondly, he accuses them of abandoning God’s word by substituting their own arguments and ingenious interpretations for what God requires. They devised clever arguments based on their own thoughts rather than on God’s word. Jesus refers them to the prophecy of Isaiah (29:31) where the prophet accuses the people of his day for honoring God with their lips while their hearts were far away from choosing and doing what God asked of them. With this we need to look at the law.
What is the purpose of the law? More importantly, why should we observe the law? Is it so that we don’t go to jail or get a speeding ticket? That would not be the answer of Jesus, or the answer from the book of Deuteronomy in today’s first reading. The law is a gift of God, and its purpose is to bring us fulfillment. The most serious consequence of breaking the law is not that we get caught and punished, but rather that we are moving away from the fullness of life and joy that God offers us.
That is why the spirit of the law is so important to Jesus and why he can say that even though the Pharisees follow all the prescriptions of the law, they may not in fact be seeing the spirit of the law and so are missing the offer of life that God is giving them. If we observe the law of God and embrace it with our hearts, then we are well on our way to being the complete person that Christ calls us to be.
Law must be rooted in the love of God and be an expression of it. It is very easy to get lost in the details or caught up in the robotic repetition of following the law or rituals. We need to stop and ask ourselves the following: How many times have we walked into a church and habitually dipped our hand into the font of Holy Water with which to sign ourselves? We walk further, genuflect to the tabernacle, slide into our seats, rattle off a few of our favorite prayers, zone out for a while, automatically respond at the appropriate times — And with your Spirit — Amen — Thanks be to God – And with your Spirit — Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ — Amen — And also with you — We lift them up to the Lord — It is right to give Him thanks and praise — etc.
Or worse, perhaps, we judge other people by what they might wear to Church, where they might sit, how they conduct themselves in the communion line, how they receive communion, how long they pray — etc.
Rituals and external practices (rubrics), as important as they are, are secondary; what is most important are the actions of the heart and the actions that flow from it. What God wants is an honest and contrite heart: one that knows it’s own weakness and struggles to avoid what is evil and to do what is good.
Jesus points his listeners to the source of true defilement – evil desires which come from inside a person’s innermost being. Sin does not happen. It first springs from the innermost recesses of our thoughts and intentions, from the secret desires which only the individual soul can conceive. The Lord created everything good and for the good, but his creatures: the fallen angels, starting with Satan, and humanity, starting with Adam and Eve freely chose to do evil instead: If the world is a mess, it is because we, sinners, made it and allowed it to be so.
God in his mercy sent his Son Jesus Christ to free us from our sinful cravings and burden of guilt, and to restore us to wholeness of life and goodness. But to receive his mercy and healing, we must admit our faults and ask for his forgiveness. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
Only God can change our hearts and make them clean and whole through the power of the Holy Spirit. Like a physician who probes the wound before treating it, God through his Word and Spirit first brings to light our sinful condition that we may recognize sin for what it is and call upon God’s mercy and pardon. The Lord is ever ready to change and purify our hearts through his Holy Spirit who dwells within us. His power and grace enables us to choose what is good and to reject what is evil. We have to ask ourselves over and over: Do we believe in the power of God’s love to change and transform our heart?
We were not created to be perfect; we were created to be real. Real people make mistakes, take wrong turns and disappoint themselves and others even when they’re doing the best they can. But we were created to grow, learn, and evolve. We need to be lovingly gentle and forgiving with ourselves whenever we reflect upon the past. And then we need to turn out attention and energy into using what we’ve learned as we love the people in our lives and embrace the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead with hope.