August 30, 2015 St Peter the Apostle Church — Naples, FL
Deut 4, 1-2, 6-8 + Psalm 15 + James 1, 17-18, 21b-22, 27 + Mark 7, 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
There is a ten year old and a seven year old living in the home of my older niece and her husband. I have begun to look upon that house as a “House of Formation”: not “formation” in a religious sense, but rather in the sense of “formation” for civilization. In contrast to most religious houses of formation, this one is very noisy. If sounds are not coming from an iPhone or an Xbox, they come from one or the other victim of violence inflicted by the one who is on top at the moment. There are certain antiphons that one can hear in that house quite frequently, much like the antiphons in church. One of the frequently repeated antiphons is: “Did you wash your hands?” I think it might be part of Psalm 26 in which King David says: “I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O Lord” because usually this antiphon is spoken just as they gather at the dinner table.
This family ritual comes to mind as Jesus and his disciples confront the Pharisees who are all put out because someone forgot to wash their hands. I find it curious that these critics are busy watching who is washing and who is not. Was there nothing else to do in their lives? None the less, as the incident occurs and Jesus speaks, the issue of purity or cleanliness is raised, but it is not so much about the washing as it is about rules in general. It does not take a lot of attention to get the impression that Jesus of Nazareth was not particularly scrupulous about following the rules of his time. To give him the benefit of the doubt, we could say that while he was a rule breaker, he was also a rule maker. He hung out with tax collectors and sinners. He touched sick people and the dead. He walked with Samaritans and women, and he was seen in the house of Romans. This is not rule keeping. So, when the Pharisees have had enough, they start a confrontation, and they get one. They want to talk about clean hands. Jesus wants to talk about a clean heart. So when it comes to a question of how you get clean, Jesus does not answer the question, but anyone watching him knows the answer. The Pharisees think that one is cleansed by hand washing. What we learn from the Gospel’s description of Jesus is that one is made clean not by what we do for ourselves, washing; but by what Jesus does, touching. The unclean in the Gospel are cleansed by the touch of Jesus. Without that experience, without being in the presence of and without being touched by Jesus one remains unclean no matter how much or how often they may wash their hands.
Now, as always, this Gospel has two levels. When considered at the first level, in the very immediate time of Jesus the story concerns this question of which is better, clean hands or clean hearts as Jesus challenges the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and a religion of rules as they teach it. Keep the rules and all will be well no matter what you are thinking or feeling.
At a second level comes Mark’s purpose of including this story, and what it says to and about the early church. At this level it is something different because the community Mark is writing to is struggling with the integration of Jewish and Gentile customs and cultures. So the incident and conversation with the Pharisees is remembered and retold to get the Jewish followers of Jesus to lighten up on the Gentiles, and to open themselves up to the possibility that things change, and rules change, especially rules that are not God-given. It is like the experience we have had with changing the rules about compulsory abstinence from meat on Friday as just one example. Rules that we make can change, and sometimes for the good of the whole church they should change.
Then there comes the third level of this Gospel after considering what Jesus was doing and saying, then what Mark was doing and saying, we must ask ourselves what’s the point of telling this story again today? I think both levels can answer that question. We can follow all the rules, and we can keep all the commandments, go to Mass at least once a week, fast and abstain, and do everything else we think we must do; but if Jesus Christ has not entered and touched our lives to challenge our thinking and guide our behavior, we are not clean. At the same time, the second level is still important, because we are living at a time when things are changing, and no one is making that more obvious than the Pope himself who is saying and asking things of us that are very different from the old ways. Our response to all of this must be like the response of the Jewish people to Mark’s formation as they made room for and welcomed those who were different.
I would remind you that in Greek drama, the chorus and the actors were called: hypocrites which was the word Greek word for “mask.” There was a sad mask for tragedies and a smiling mask for comedies. Jesus insists that we take off our masks, and come to stand pure and innocent in his presence, for only in his presence and by his touch will we ever be made clean.