Introduction: Last month we have many cases of food poisoning in the various parts of the country; from Surigao,Caloocan, Calamba. The victims are mostly public school children. A television ad coming from the DOH (also doubling as media exposure of the department head) warns the public to be extra careful in their eating habits foremost of which is to maintain the cleanliness of hands as they are the conduits by which the bacteria enters into our system. We need to maintain our hygiene to prevent unnecessary disease. Of course no one can argue with that common sense reminder, because it is almost second nature for all of us to observe cleanliness. We have a saying cleanliness is next to Godliness.
GOSPEL: The Gospel today is the interchange of Jesus and the Pharisees regarding ritual purity which is an essential dimension of Pharisaic religion. It is an effort to claim Jewish identity in a world happier with polytheistic style. The Pharisees argued that the practice of eating with undefiled hands was an obligation imposed not only on the Temple only but also on all Jewish people who sought to be the holy people they are called to be. To heed the stipulation of the oral law like this was not to escape into trivialities but to demonstrate how seriously the law of God has to be taken. Since Jesus is obviously a religious teacher, why do his disciples not take seriously the tradition of the elders, which is intended as a fence around the law to protect it? Why do they avoid this concern, which is so characteristically Jewish?
1. Jesus’ first response was an attack on the notion that the laws of God needs to be protected by the traditions of the elders. The Pharisees are making void the word of God through their tradition. The elevation of the oral law to a place of parity alongside the Torah ultimately undercuts.
2. The second response of Jesus,however is even more substantive. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but things that come out are what defile.” The whole notion of ritual purity or holiness based on food laws is undermined in one precise statement. What matters is the heart, the seat of the will where decisions are made about one’s neighbor. The condition of the heart, whether debased or pure, is far more critical that the food one eats or whether one attends to the washing of the hands.
3. The broader context in which this interchange occurs presentsan interesting backdrop. On the one hand, there are the two generous feedings of the multitude and an extravagant summary of Jesus healing in and around Gennesaret. On the other hand it is followed by the persistent faith of the gentile woman who asks only for crumbs and the restoration of hearing and speech of a deaf man living in a gentile area of Decapolis. These events pose a sharp contrast to the restrictive issue of the washing of hands before eating. (W.Brueggmann, et al.)
WORD: There is a need to distinguish between the will of God and his commandments and on the hands the oral traditions. We have many of them, especially in the matters of worship and liturgy. A concrete example would be the reception of the Eucharist. Should we receive it in our hands or through our mouth? How long should our exposition and benediction be? And yet these traditions can get into the way of loving relationships among parishioners.
The criticisms of Jesus against unnecessary emphasis on oral traditions liberates us from scrupulosity of conscience and the burden of guilty conscience. Many of what we considered sinful and therefore matters for confession are in fact non compliance with traditions. For example not observing fast before communion. Jesus wants us to forsake scrupulosity about good and evil and rediscover unity with the word of God.Instead of distinguishing between good and evil and passing judgments on man’s actions we should be trying to know God himself and be known by him. The tragedy of the Pharisees is that of all of uspretend to a knowledge outside its compass. We have it whenever people are judged on the basis of a knowledge of good and evil that ignores God. Living in conformity with God’s will setshim free from all casuistry about good and evil and made us closer to the sinner. We examine our conscience not so much to analyze the good and the evil but whether in our hearts we find the word of God. The cure of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the restoration of the hearing and speech of the man from Decapolis depict the gracious way God operates. Neither character knows much about the ritual purity or tradition of the elders, but both know about the divine grace that made them whole. Jesus is not only patching up the old to make it more serviceable. He inaugurates something entirely new.