Sep. 1, 2018

TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2018

WASHING OUR HANDS OR WASHING OUR HEARTS?

Readings: 1st- Deut. 4: 1-2, 6-8; 2nd- Jas. 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Gospel- Mk. 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Pharisees and some Scribes travel all the way from Jerusalem to confront Jesus about his disciples not washing their hands before eating their meals. It is as if these Scribes are concerned about the health of Jesus’ disciples. That must be a serious visit because as commentators said, it took about four days’ journey on foot to travel from Jerusalem to Galilee. For the Scribes to embark on such journey speaks of the seriousness of their desire in this context. The Scribes are the custodians of the law of Moses and have multiplied these laws and traditions to cover every aspect of the Jewish lifestyles. Mark records in the gospel, “For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders.” Other traditions include: purifying themselves after coming from the market; purifying their cups, jugs, kettles, and beds. They can be described as a set of men who promote hygiene in that sense of cleanliness. But what they are pushing for in this case is not personal hygiene. It is for the disciples of Jesus to do what the law says.

Handwashing is good. My mom wouldn’t let us eat without washing our hands. I’m sure most of us felt the same experience growing up even though as little kids, we sometimes forgot to wash our hands. Our parents would not let us go away with that. Also, in modern medicine, those who work in the hospital environments know the value of using the hand sanitizers before going in, and after coming out from a patient’s room. That is a routine for health and hygiene maintenance. Everyone wants to stay away from germs and bacteria. Hence, the importance of handwashing. But the Pharisees’ push for handwashing is different. It is a ritual that must be kept in recognition of their law. It is a tradition to wash hands before a meal. It is a show of the external cleanliness by which the person is identified as a member of the society.

The Scribes and Pharisees know that Jesus is a teacher. And being Jew, they expected him to teach the tradition to his disciples. They have come to register their grievance with him for not teaching the true doctrine. It is an indirect indictment against him. They want their tradition to overrule God’s law. For them, it doesn’t matter what the individual does once he washes his hands. Wash the hands and cheat. Wash your hands and take bribes. Wash your hands and manipulate others. Wash the hands and covet. That’s not their business in so far as the tradition of handwashing is kept. Jesus disagrees with them. He takes them beyond mere externalism, beyond the show of their traditional expectations.

Jesus helps the Pharisees to understand the meaning of worship. They disregard God’s commandment and stick with their human invented traditions. That’s absolutely unacceptable. He affirms, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” Jesus enumerates the things that come from within: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness (lacking in moral restraint), envy, blasphemy, arrogance, and folly”. The question is whether the Jews are free from these. Of course, they are not. For this reason, Jesus describes them as hypocrites, who wash their hands while leaving their hearts dirty. He diagnoses their condition, a surface that masks the dirt of the interior. The origin of sin and morality is to be sought from the inside and not outside. It is not what we eat that matters. It is what we do that counts because action proceeds from our hearts.

I’m wondering whether we still have this handwashing ritual today, then my mind goes straight to the handwashing that the priest does at Mass before Consecration of the Blessed Eucharist. I know that sacristans and some members in the congregation would complain against a priest who doesn’t wash his hands before Consecration. Liturgists would be very upset at a priest who doesn’t wash his hands. They will see him the way the Pharisees saw Christ’s disciples in the gospel of today. The question is, why does the priest wash his hands before the Consecration? Did he just visit the restroom before starting the Mass? The answer is no. The priest washes his hands as a sign of inward cleansing. He asks Christ to cleanse him from within as he presides over the sacrifice of the Eucharist. He says, “Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me from all my sins.” However, it is possible that the priest who is washing his hands is inwardly impure before God. That is when the ritual becomes mere external manifestation. The cleansing of the outside must tally with the inside. Wash the heart where God’s love dwells.

Washing of the heart is what it means to be “doers of the word”. In the second reading, Saint James invites us to humbly welcome God’s word in our hearts. He teaches us what practical Christianity implies: “to care for the orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27). To demand for external acts without doing God’s word, without caring for others and being charitable is externalism. It contradicts the demands of christian calling. If you have a sick neighbor who needs your attention and you abandon her to come to church, you are only washing your hands. If you go away from Mass and look away at the needy whom you can offer help, you are washing your hands. In one of his recent homilies, Pope Francis challenged Christians to be “protagonists of the good.” He condemned attitudes that claim being religious while not actively doing good. The Holy Father states, “If I say I am Catholic and go to mass, but then don’t speak with my parents, help my grandparents or the poor, go and see those who are sick, this does not prove my faith, there’s no point.”

What then should we wash, our hands or our hearts? The prophet Jeremiah says, “Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved. How long will you harbor wicked thoughts?” ((Jer. 4:14). Isaiah challenges us, “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong” (1:16). The apostle James invites us, “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8). To wash our hands clean in order to prevent germs and bacteria is not bad. We are not condemned for washing our hands to keep clean. We rather stand to be condemned for not keeping our hearts clean form evil. Today, Jesus invites us to action, to think of what God wants us to do. We have to be protagonists of the good. Wash your hearts clean and dine with the Lord. That is the best observation of the Law.