Judaism and Christianity are religions of the book - we are based on the Sacred Scriptures or Bible to know God, his commandments, and the way of living. At a first glance of today gospel, we might have the wrong impression that the Pharisees are the ones strictly observing the laws and Jesus is the one who ignores the laws. The Pharisees criticize that Jesus’ disciples do not keep the purification tradition and Jesus excuses them for it.
In Jesus time, the Pharisees and the Scribes would have been considered extraordinarily religious people. They went to the synagogue every Saturday. They prayed at least three times a day. They washed before every meal. They fasted routinely. They gave ten percent of their income each year to the Temple. It seems they are perfect religious models.
They routinely spied on Jesus and his disciples because of the growing honorable reputation of Jesus. In this reading, the Pharisees challenge Jesus’ disciples for failure to observe “the tradition of the elders”, particularly eating without washing hands.
What are “the tradition of the elders”? Are they the Law of Moses? According to John J. Pilch and the modern anthropologists, “the tradition of the elders” is a set of practices which is defined, maintained, and practiced by elites who lived in the cities. These tradition are called “The Great Tradition”. The Pharisees required that everyone observe these urban traditions. Peasants in the countryside, or travelers like Jesus and his followers, would have difficulty observing these traditions because water was scarce and not readily available for washings. Besides, the fishermen routinely came into contact with dead fish, dead animals, and other pollutants.
Peasant therefore developed “The Little Tradition” which adapted requirements of “The Great Tradition” to the realities and deficiencies of peasant life. Obviously, Jesus sided with “The Little Tradition” and counter challenged the Pharisees for minimizing and ignoring the Law of Moses in preference for their “Great Tradition” (Mk 7:9-13).
In the first reading Moses said, “In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it,” by these words, we see that the Pharisees are the ones who broke the Law of Moses not Jesus. Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees reminds us of His mission that somewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, He says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17).
Here, Jesus fulfills the law by lifting it up so it’s no longer a burden but a way to serve people. In the second reading, St. James tells us that: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Jesus stands for the poor and powerless people; he understands their situations because he is Immanuel, God-with-us.
The law itself is good, but if it becomes a means to self-exalt and to humiliate others it would lose its purpose. Sanitization is a good habit before eating but it should not be a reason to criticize other for not doing so. With a compassionate heart, one can see a reason behind it to sympathize for the poor.
The tendency of the ones who observe the law is to criticize whom violates it. They think about the law instead of the people. The Pharisees did exactly that. They challenged Jesus not for a merely sanitizing reason, but because they wanted to show off that they were the righteous ones for keeping the tradition to the very details.
Here we see that Jesus goes to the point – clean or unclean. Unclean food or unclean hand is not as important as unclean thoughts, words, and behaviors. Jesus said, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. 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.”
God’s commandments are to help us to become holy. Holiness is different from religious, and anyone could be holy if they put the love – of God and of other – above everything else, even themselves.
Religious is the external so it is easily be done mechanically and for an ego purpose, while holy is the internal of the heart that only God sees, and so the action of a holy person cannot be affected by other’s compliments or criticize therefore they have a peace that nobody can take it away.
We pray every day, we participate in the Mass, we keep the Ten Commandments, that is to become holy as Jesus encourages us. When we try to live in holiness, we discipline ourselves to control our hatred words, bad thoughts, and whatever defiles us. Praying daily will help us to know ourselves better by recognizing our weaknesses and to recognize that we are sinners.
The tendency of the one who observe the law is to criticize who violates it. This is a challenge for us – who wants to keep God’s commandments and the Church’s law closely and have compassion for those who do not or cannot keep the commandments by any reason.
We keep the commandments not because we want to prove we are deserving of salvation – which is the mentality of a slave who does the work not out of love so it is a burden – but to show the love of a child to God the Father who commands us to love others as ourselves.