Superficial or ritual purity cleanses nothing

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

When I visited the Central American country of Belize, I was impressed by the widespread emphasis upon hygiene that I saw there.

For example, it was common to see a hand sink out in the dining room of restaurants, to encourage people to wash their hands before eating. It is a praiseworthy habit: to wash your hands before eating. It can keep us healthy.

In Sunday’s Gospel reading — Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 — Jesus engages in a discussion with the Pharisees and some scribes from Jerusalem over this practice. We should note that it was not out of concern for physical health that the Pharisees and scribes were washing their hands.

Rather, it was a matter of ritual purity. They did not wish to wash away physical uncleanliness but, rather, any contact with things that were taboo. This concern over ritual purity extended beyond handwashing, to include “the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.”

Jesus is criticizing their focus on ritual purity, because it was taking their attention away from moral concerns. That is why he quotes the prophet Isaiah: “Their hearts are far from me.”

When our hearts are far from God, it is more likely that evils will proceed from them, such as are enumerated in the Gospel: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed and so on.

Jesus points to this concern for ritual purity as coming from human tradition, rather than from God’s commandments. Consequently, the Pharisees and the scribes are ignoring God’s will: “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

According to Jesus, when we focus on ritual purity, it keeps us on a superficial level. Jesus wants us to go deeper, to the heart of the matter, to the human heart. That is where we make the decisions to either follow God’s will or to turn away from God. That is where either sin proceeds or the fruits of the Spirit.

That is why we say that sin involves a conscious decision on our part. If we do something accidentally, or out of deeply ingrained habit, or are compelled to do something wrong, then it is probably not a sin, because it has not proceeded from our heart. And that is where sin originates. That is the heart of the matter:

“From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”

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