22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
August 30, 2009 – Year B
Dt 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?”
Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5
R. (1a)One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice;
who thinks the truth in his heart
and slanders not with his tongue.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who harms not his fellow man,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
by whom the reprobate is despised,
while he honors those who fear the LORD.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who lends not his money at usury
and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
shall never be disturbed.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Jas 1:17-18, 21b-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 first fruits 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.
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.”
Once a man was waiting for a taxi. A beggar came along and asked him for some money. The man ignored him. But being a professional, the beggar kept on pestering him.
The man became irritated when he realized that the beggar would not leave him alone unless he parts with some money. Suddenly an idea struck him.
He told the beggar, “I do not have money, but if you tell me what you want to do with the money, I will certainly help you.”
“I would have bought a cup of tea”, replied the beggar. The man said, “Sorry man. I can offer you a cigarette instead of tea”. He then took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered one to the beggar.
The beggar told, “I don’t smoke as it is injurious to health.”
The man smiled and took a bottle of whisky from his pocket and told the beggar, “Here, take this bottle and enjoy the stuff. It is really good”. The beggar refused by saying, “Alcohol muddles the brain and damages the liver”. The man smiled again. He told the beggar, “I am going to the race course. Come with me and I will arrange for some tickets and we will place bets. If we win, you take the whole amount and leave me alone”. As before, the beggar politely refused the latest offer by saying, “Sorry sir, I can’t come with you as betting on horses is a bad habit.”
Suddenly the man felt relieved and asked the beggar to come to his home with him. Finally, the beggar’s face lit up in anticipation of receiving at least something from the man. But he still had his doubts and asked the man, “Why do you want me to go to your house with you”. The man replied, “My wife always wanted to see how a man with no Bad habits looks like.”
The Pharisees came from Jerusalem to watch the words of Jesus and catch him committing mistakes on the various aspects of the law. We know that all that they were busy with was to impose restrictions on people, without giving importance to life. Jesus enumerates the nature of our hearts. What comes from within is what defiles and what goes in does not defile us. Well, that is what we normally see and hear in our daily lives.
Sometimes our insight into Scripture can be enhanced by hearing a story from another source. On considering today’s Gospel, I have gained a deeper sense of its message through a Zen Buddhist story told about Nan-in, a teacher who was active a hundred years ago in Japan.
It seems that one day, Nan-in received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overflowing! No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a group of people who, like Nan-in’s visitor, are full cups that need to be emptied if they are ever to receive his message.
Jesus is in Galilee, yet some Pharisees and scribes have made the trip down from Jerusalem because of him. The author of Mark’s Gospel has already told us of the conspiracy to kill him [Mark 3:6], and it will be in Jerusalem, of course, that he is put to death. So it seems particularly ominous that these people have come all this way to gather around Jesus.
What is it that they say to him? Do they look for some teaching that will guide them to live a better life? Do they seek some word of hope and encouragement? No. What they do instead is find fault. They lack the nerve to confront Jesus directly, even though he has violated many of their cherished precepts, so instead they find fault with some of his disciples.
What they criticize is not a huge failing, moral or spiritual, but that these disciples omit an observance of human origin, a pious custom. They notice certain disciples of Jesus eating with unwashed hands, and this scandalizes them.
The hand washing in question is not a hygienic measure. It is a practice meant to wash away ritual defilement, such as that caused by touching something or somebody deemed unclean. The Law of Moses mandates hand washing only for priests attending to their duties within the area set aside as sacred. The Pharisees, however, extend the practice to other circumstances. Thus they use this hand washing as what one scholar calls a “boundary marker a way for them to distinguish themselves from the surrounding pagan population.
So these scribes and Pharisees who gather around Jesus ask him why his disciples fail to keep the tradition of the elders. They are what Nan-in calls full cups that must be emptied. What fills them are their own opinions and speculations. They have pegged Jesus and his disciples as bad people, and it is this condemnation that absorbs their energy. They have no energy left for anything better, anything more important. Their cups are full, and anything more poured in at this moment would only be wasted.
Jesus recognizes these Pharisees and scribes as not simply a nuisance, but as examples of a spiritual danger that can threaten any of us. He calls together the people around him, the crowd, so they can hear the warning he feels compelled to offer them. In effect, what Jesus tells the crowd is this: “Look out! Purity is not a matter of keeping external rules, without regard for what’s inside you. Righteousness is not simply how you behave when people are watching. Just as you have an inner aspect as well as an outer one, even so, keeping rules is not what it’s about. You must pay attention to the condition of your heart!”
What Jesus means by heart is not the muscle in our chest that pumps blood, nor our emotional aspect the Valentine’s day heart. Jesus understands the heart in the Hebrew sense as the center or core of the person, the inner self.
He announces that the heart is where the problem lies. Our hearts are full. What fills them is, all too often, poisons that kill our spirits and the spirits of people we influence. Jesus lists these poisons. He names such evil intentions as fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly. Like Nan-in’s tea cup, our hearts overflow, but what they hold are not simply our own opinions and speculations, but poisons that can prove lethal for ourselves and other people.
This Gospel is not intended to render us helpless, but to make us see a true problem, the challenge before us as people of faith.
We live in a consumer society that bombards us with messages about how consumption can solve our problems. But consumption cannot solve this problem that Jesus exposes. What we need is not to pour still more tea into our overflowing cup. What we need is to empty and detoxify our hearts from the poisons flooding forth from it. The problem is not external, and neither is the solution.
What we require, at the center of our being, is for God to create a new heart. This needs to happen, not one time only, but continually. Over and over again, the overflowing cup must be emptied, the poison purged from our hearts and lives, so that the transforming grace of Christ can find a home in us. Along with Nan-in’s university professor, we must be set free from our own opinions and speculations, and become, like children, susceptible to wonder at the miracles around and within us.
Christian discipleship offers many ways by which our hearts can be emptied out and become ready to receive the gift of transforming grace. Each of these ways must be used wisely if we are to have tea cups that are empty, not overflowing; hearts that are empty, not loaded with toxins.
There is one such way that I would like us to recall now, for the lack of it is sadly apparent among the scribes and Pharisees who surround Jesus in this morning’s Gospel.
All we hear from these Pharisees and scribes concerns a custom of merely human origin, something of small import in the vast complex of faith and life which is Judaism at that time. Theirs is an unexciting complaint, one that hardly suggests the adventure of the Exodus and Exile, the profundity of the Torah and the Prophets. The one thing they choose to say to Jesus is a long way indeed from the loving-kindness and mercy that Israel’s Holy One shows to his people.
May it not be so among us! As Christians, we must not let peripheral matters take center stage. To prevent this, we must repeatedly challenge ourselves. We must turn time and again to the majors of discipleship. Yes, we do well to measure our lives, as persons and communities, by nothing less than the expansive standard of the Great Commandment that we love God with the entirety of our being and love our neighbors all of them as we love ourselves. Our discipleship needs to be characterized by nothing less than wonder, love, and praise.
These are among the important principles in which our generous and awesome God invites us to become an adult. These are ways we are set free from a host of poisons. In such ways as these, our tea cups are emptied of all our opinions and speculations that they may be filled instead with the gift of that bountiful life which surpasses all that we can ask or imagine.