First reading: Deut. 4:1–2,6–8
Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. 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. Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’ For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”
Second reading: Jas. 1:17–18,21–22,27
Dearest brothers and sisters: All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.
Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.
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.
Gospel: Mk. 7:1–8,14–15,21–23
When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.—For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.—So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. 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.”
In other words Fr. Jose H. P. Mateo, SVD (Paraguay, South America)
“I have two hands, the left and the right. Hold them up high, so clean and bright. Clap them softly: one, two, three. Clean little hands are good to see!” Those are the lyrics of a children’s song we all learned in kindergarten.
I remember this nursery rhyme because today the Gospel talks about a dispute regarding ceremonial washings. A delegation of religious leaders from Jerusalem assembled around Jesus to criticize Him and to complain to Him about the failure of the disciples to observe the ritual washing. The Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
As a background, the behavior of the disciples was not merely a question of proper hygiene. What the disciples did was against the norms of ritual purity. So for the religious leaders at that time, the matter in question was of utmost importance because, for them, any contact with the pure and impure always related to one’s relationship with God. Therefore, the disciples who ate with unclean hands were far from God. The dispute gave rise to a lengthy response from Jesus.
First of all, Jesus directed Himself to the Pharisees and spoke to them so strongly, referring to them as hypocrites. Citing Isaiah, Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Secondly, Jesus addressed Himself to the people and spoke to them with kindness. He exhorted the people to listen and understand. To the crowd, Jesus declared that not what comes in but what comes out from within defiles and reveals an unclean heart. And lastly, when He got home, Jesus spoke to His disciples. Away from the crowd, Jesus explained to His disciples with clarity and patience the same lesson He imparted with the people.
Like the Pharisees, we also fall into the trap of excessive fondness for ritual. Sometimes we project an image of being religious and spiritual, but our hearts are far from God. Sometimes we act like hypocrites. We put on a false appearance of virtue and act in contradiction with our beliefs. We celebrate Mass every day, but our hearts are far from God. We preach during Mass, but our hearts are far from God. We pray and receive communion daily, but our hearts are far from God. We serve as lectors and lay ministers, but our hearts are far from God.
“Clean little hands are good to see!” It’s good to sing that once in a while. But this should be our prayer, today and every day: “A clean heart create for me, O God; renew within me a steadfast spirit” (Ps. 51:12).