August 29, 2021 at St. Peter the Apostle and Saint William Parishes in Naples, FL
Deuteronomy 4, 1-2, 6-8 + Psalm 15 + James 1, 17-18, 21-27 + Mark 7, 1-8, 13-15, 21-23
Mark tells us at the beginning of this episode that these Pharisees and some Scribes came from Jerusalem. With this detail, Mark signals that these guys come with authority because Jerusalem was the place above all where purity was to be maintained, and the laws which provided purity were to be enforced. The whole system in Jerusalem was about deciding what or who was clean or unclean. If something or someone was unclean, it was restored to purity there, and you did that by keeping the law which told you what to do. It’s not difficult to come up with the impression that those Pharisees and Scribes were fixated on purity. It was just all that mattered to them because a lot of their power and authority came from their perceived “purity”. It was a perception that came from their precise, public, and exact keeping of the law. In their obsessive concern about purity, the confused the distinction between law and custom. Jesus was not confused, and he made it clear to them. The Law came from Moses, the customs that developed over time around the law came from men.
Behind all of this is a much more important concern that I believe Jesus speaks about today and leaves us to address, and that is basically the concern about purity itself and where it comes from. Mark addresses the church to whom he writes with the concern that they seek purity and lead pure and holy lives. It was a church that was in trouble with the Jewish authorities because they were not keeping the law. Chief among them was eating with Gentiles and others who did not observe all the customs like washing their hands which had nothing to do with sanitation. It was religious gesture about purity. So Mark writes to keep them focused on God’s will that they all be one, pure in God’s sight.
Obviously from what Jesus has to say, purity is not a consequence of keeping laws or, for that matter of observing customs. It is not clean hands that make someone pure no matter what the Pharisees and Scribes want to think. They wanted to look at hands and decide who was in and who was out. It was always a matter of deciding who was clean and unclean. Jesus will have none of that. First of all, he had already on many occasions made himself “unclean” by their standards by touching other people the Pharisees had branded as unclean. Lepers and those paralytics could never wash their hands. What irritates Jesus, and his impatience with them is not hard to miss, is that he does not accept the judgement that these otherwise good decent people are being excluded because they are judged to be “unclean.”
What they can’t deal with, and what we must deal with is the question of where purity comes from, and how is it achieved. What Jesus asks of us is more than being law abiding. The pure in the sight of God are far more than those who just keep the rules. Law abiding people are not necessarily clean because the keep the law. Just because you use your turn signal and do not speed doesn’t mean you are pure and clean (in the Gospel sense) when you go down the road cursing at anyone who gets in your way. There is no law about racism, but people who harbor racist attitudes and judge others by their accent or skin color are a long way from being pure in God’s eyes.
Purity comes from within says Jesus. It resides in the heart not in the law book. Something is pure when it is not mixed with anything else. A pure wine is not a blend. Pure water has nothing added, no chemicals. When Jesus speaks about the Pure of Heart promising that they will see God, it means that they don’t see or look at anything else. In a sense, when something is pure it means, what you see is what you get. And so it must be for us as Jesus speaks in this assembly. Our motives, our judgments, our hearts must be pure. When we give it cannot be to look good or get something back. If we contribute to church or some charity, it cannot be just because we want a tax deduction. We cannot be kind to someone expecting kindness in return and stop when it is not. When I was a pastor and someone came with a gift to the parish that had strings attached, I knew it was a bribe. That the difference between a gift and bribe, strings. There were no strings attached to anything Jesus did for us. He gave his life for the sinners and the saints. It was pure obedience to the will of the Father.
We go from here today once more purified by the blood of the cross just as the Israelites were purified by the blood of the lamb they offered in the Temple. We go from here nourished by the Word made flesh calling us to purify our lives by placing God’s singular law of Love beyond everything else. It is not a love given so that we might be loved in return, but a love given so that we might become one with love itself, Divine Love in the flesh, Jesus Christ.