Reflection on the Gospel-22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) -Veronica Lawson RSM
After a lengthy detour over some weeks into the gospel of John with its focus on Jesus as the Bread of Life and the Bread of Wisdom, we return to Mark’s gospel and a legal dispute about ritual purity. The parties to the dispute are Jesus, the Pharisees, and some of the scribes or teachers of the law. It is worth noting that Mark’s non-Jewish readers, at a later time and in another place, need to be given detailed information about certain Jewish traditions.
At issue for the scribes and Pharisees in the story is the failure of Jesus’ disciples to respect their oral tradition, in this instance to perform ritual washings before eating. From their perspective, the disciples are not “walking” according to the tradition of the elders. For the Markan Jesus, “the command of God” is paramount, not some distorted interpretation of it. He offers a hard-hitting counter-critique of their attitude to law. He calls them “hypocrites” and informs them that the condemnation of the prophet Isaiah was intended for them. They have so distorted God’s law, substituting their own observances for the “commandment of God” that their prayer amounts to nothing more than lip-service, their hearts are far from God, and their worship is worthless!
For Jesus, there are criteria other than such observances for determining who is clean or unclean. He has already declared the leper clean (Mk 1:41-45). For Jesus, the “heart” is the locus of purity and impurity. For him as for all his people, the heart was the seat of the intellect and of morality as well as the seat of the emotions. In the kin-dom of God, therefore, one’s thoughts, desires, and intentions render one clean or unclean, not one’s attention to hygiene. The latter is important of course, as the experience of pandemic has taught us, but it is peripheral in the context being addressed in the gospel. It is worth applying the criteria provided at the end of the passage to discover whether or not our “hearts” are near or distant from our God. The real-life Pharisees of the first century were the respected teachers of God’s law. It is imperative that stories such as we find in today’s gospel are not used to denigrate the Jews or to pit Christianity over against Judaism. We have to keep reminding ourselves that time and again we are dealing with in-house debates between Jewish groups.
Finally, this episode, with its attention to ritual washing, raises the issue of the right use of water, that precious earth element without which there would be no life at all on our planet. Plastic free July this year alerted us once more to the problem that the plastic bottling of water has brought to the future of life on our planet. It may be time to bring out our “keep cup” and reaffirm our commitment to protecting God’s creation.