In reply to Pharisaic hypocrisy, the Divine Teacher shows that it is not outward appearances, but the intentions of the heart that define man.
Gospel for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 2 they observed that some of His disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. 3 For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. 4 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. 5 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?” 6 He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honours Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me; 7 in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. 8 You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
14 He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear Me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. 21 From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. 23 All these evils come from within and they defile” (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23).
I – What Conduct Is Compatible with Divine Life?
We were all born in sin, at enmity with God and the object of His wrath (cf. Eph 2:3), but, called to attain possession of beatific vision, we were—along with the Angels—raised to divine life. It is a life so superior to mere natural life, that grace—by which we participate in it—belongs to the sixth plane of creation, far above the minerals, plants, animals, men and even the Angels. It was by God’s own initiative that we were introduced to this life by the extraordinary miracle of Baptism which made us His children. When the priest poured water over our head and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” we ceased to be mere rational animals and became divine beings, with the virtues of faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit instilled in the soul.
In the Liturgy for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time we find encouragement, promptings, and clarifications concerning this life, to make us worthier of reaching its plenitude, in our passage from time to eternity.
Supernatural life: a gift of the “Father of lights”
In the second reading (Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27) St. James asserts: “All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17a). There is no more perfect gift than this supernatural life! There are three creatures that have “a certain infinite dignity,”1 for God could not have made them more perfect: Jesus Christ Man, the Blessed Virgin and the beatific vision; the latter we already possess in an incipient form, in this world, through grace.
The “Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change” (Jas 1:17b) because He is Absolute Being, “willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (Jas 1:18). Very truly, He begot us for divine life through His Word, who became Incarnate so that all would have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10). Accordingly, it is with meekness that we should receive the Word of God, which is able to save our souls (cf. Jas 1:21b).
St. James continues: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves” (1:22); that is, it is not enough to know doctrine, it is necessary to respect the laws of the supernatural life, learning how to change our conduct, facing the inclinations that spring up due to original sin, and vanquishing them in order to attain the promised reward. This is the trial we all undergo in the course of our earthly journey. In order to maintain divine sonship, it is vitally important to develop the life of grace by fulfilling the Word. For this end, St. James goes on to counsel that it is necessary “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27). The outlook of the world is, in fact, devoid of the supernatural.
The Responsorial Psalm, in turn, makes a highly enlightening query: “O Lord, who shall sojourn in Thy tent? Who shall dwell on Thy holy hill?” It is as if to say: Who will live with Thee, O Lord? Who will eternally share Thy company? Who will participate in Thy happiness and behold Thee face to face? Who will partake of Thy goods? And the Psalmist continues: “Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice” (Ps 15:2), in other words, whoever loves and practises holiness.
To enter the Promised Land, Israel must assume a supernatural spirit
In the first reading (Dt 4:1-2, 6-8) we encounter Moses after having accomplished wonders by the power of God. He had freed the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery and, stretching out his rod, had divided the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross over dry shod (cf. Ex 14:21-22). Subsequently, before the frightful threat of the Egyptian troops who arrived to seize them and take them back—for Pharaoh had regretted letting them depart—he once again raised his arm and the waters came together and swallowed the enemy’s army (cf. Ex 14:27-28).
Forty years in the desert followed, during which, in addition to other stupendous miracles, Moses drew water from a rock, and God sent manna from Heaven and ordered quails to come up and cover the camp of the Israelites to feed them (cf. Ex 17:1-6; 16:4-31). For that nation, it was four decades of formation and learning, as well as of chastisement for the evil they had practised! But regardless of these infidelities, God’s promise did not fail; rather, He fulfilled it, giving them the Promised Land.
As the people made ready to enter, it was incumbent on them to make return for the benefits received and those that still awaited them. What does such reciprocity entail? This reading teaches us that it consists in assuming a supernatural spirit and observing the moral and religious conduct prescribed by God, aimed at establishing a relationship between Him and the people. The statutes transmitted by the prophet reveal the superiority of the Lord’s chosen people “to the nations” (Dt 4:6), and Moses terms these statutes as “just” (Dt 4:8). For as St. Paul points out, this Law was a teacher to lead the Hebrews to Our Lord Jesus Christ and to be justified by faith in Him (cf. Gal 3:24).
There is no participation in divine life without the Law of God
Now, the true spirit of the positive precepts of the Mosaic Law were summed up in the Decalogue, an interpretation of the conduct necessary in order to be like the Creator. These simple laws are an outstanding synthesis of the exercise of the divine life in our souls and make us fitted for it.
Without the observance of the Ten Commandments, there can be no participation in God’s life, for when a grave sin is committed—by the transgression of any of the Commandments—the soul loses sanctifying grace and the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity, becoming once again enslaved by the devil. “Mortal sin is hell in potential. For it is like an instantaneous collapse of our supernatural life, a veritable suicide of the soul to the life of grace.” 2
But human nature is profoundly logical: when man, in the sway of his evil inclinations, chooses to practise evil, he rationalizes his act in order to justify it, even before actually carrying out the deed. With this, he gradually creates another religion, with a different morality, independent from the Law of God. We find this tendency—cloaked as fidelity to the Mosaic teaching—depicted in the Gospel for this Sunday, and unmasked by Our Lord Jesus Christ.
II – They Divinized Human Laws, and Humanized Divine Laws
1 When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus…
St. Mark the Evangelist is positive, affirmative, and categorical. As a disciple and frequent travel companion of St. Peter, he had ample opportunity to witness the wickedness of the Pharisees—with which, in fact, he was already familiar, since he, too, was a Jew. Accordingly, he undertook the task of transcribing Jesus’ debates with them, both those which St. Peter had recounted to him, and those he had personally witnessed. In the scene selected for today’s Liturgy, he narrates how the scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem—who were the most assiduous in Temple attendance—gathered around Our Lord. They did not follow Him out of admiration; they came with the goal of scrutinizing Him and finding some error for which they could condemn Him.
Human traditions that deviated from the Law of God
2 … they observed that some of His disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. 3 For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. 4 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.
The scribes and Pharisees were extremely painstaking in the fulfilment of a series of ancient customs, taking them, at times, to ridiculous exaggerations. These norms, it must be said, were not contained in the Law of Moses, for they had been transmitted by tradition, but for them they had the value of dogmas, even superior to those of Revelation.
The learned Fr. Bonsirven muses over this point: “The oral law appears at first like the enclosure surrounding the Torah [the Law of Moses], to clarify those parts that are vague or extensive, and to ensure more precise observance. Nevertheless, this route was a dangerous one: under the pressure created by adding new precepts, the enclosure eventually became stifling; […] the new stipulations, which unceasingly restricted the areas in which it was possible to move about freely, the countless deductions and assimilations which amplified obligations and multiplied prohibitions, subjecting the most trifling objects to the precepts and introducing details that the Law neither foresaw nor intended, continued to widen and heighten the walls of the enclosure, constricting and binding up the Israelite in a profusion of commandments.”3
Concretely, the origin of the precepts for purification dated back to the divine requirement that the Israelites refrain from mixing with pagan peoples, in order to avoid being drawn into their false religions (cf. Ex 34:12-16). However, gradually, “what in the beginning had served to express the holiness of God and His people, was transformed into an unbearable yoke, and what had been a form of protection became a snare for souls.” 4
An erroneous theology
The Pharisees eventually invented a “closed universe” theology whereby they divided creation into two great categories: the first was of pure things, those that touched directly on worship; the second was vast, encompassing everything else, which they held to be impure.5 This was an entirely erroneous conception, for it implied that God had created only some beings that were related to Him—the rest were autonomous, devoid of all connection with the Creator.6
Accordingly, they considered ablutions and the baths after corporal contact with anything unclean as indispensible, for, in their view, such things tainted man. For instance, anyone who attended a burial and touched the deceased, or even brushed against a tomb while passing through a cemetery was obliged to purify himself. 7 Cups, jugs and kettles were washed on the outside, in order to avoid contaminating the hands of those who used them.8 This detail was nonsensical, since, for hygienic purposes, such objects should primarily be clean on the inside; but for them, the problem boiled down to touching them without risk of contamination.
In a way, their lapse into this blunder is understandable, since the starting point of their reasoning was valid. While the Angels, pure spirits, do not need to see, hear, taste, feel, or smell, being endowed with intuitive knowledge, the human creature, composed of body and soul, acquires knowledge through the senses and, therefore, needs an exterior symbol to reach conclusions and clearly understand internal realities. The Sacraments consist of matter and form, making them more accessible to our nature. The matter of Baptism, for example, is water—a purifying substance; pouring it over the head of the one being baptized signifies and accomplishes the complete purification of the soul.
Now, the Pharisees had heightened this natural human inclination to an unimaginable degree, and it was inevitable that habits established so arbitrarily and not for love of God, would reach the absurd. To mention one such custom, in the treatise Yadiyim, dedicated to the hands, the meticulous purification ritual after having “unduly” touched unclean things is described. However, it is to be noted that dirty or clean hands were not at stake, but rather legally unclean hands according to the Pharisaical concept: “The hands are pure or impure until the joint. The first water is poured on them until the joint and the second application further up; returning to the hand, it is pure. If the two ablutions are made beyond the joint, returning to the hand, it is impure. If the first [ablution] is done on one hand, and afterward, changing one’s mind, is done on both, it is impure. If the first [ablution] is done on both [hands], and afterward, changing one’s mind, on just one, it is pure. If a hand is washed and is rubbed on the other, it is impure. If it is rubbed on the head or a wall, it is pure.”9
Jesus does not impose human precepts
5 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?”
It is intriguing to note how the scribes and Pharisees did not attack the Divine Master directly, because He probably observed these traditional requirements, in order to prevent murmuring against Himself. At mealtime, He washed His hands and fulfilled the precept, as an acquired habit. At the same time, He dispensed others—in this instance, some of the Apostles—from observing it, for these minutiae and quarrels constituted a type of earthly law. He undoubtedly criticized this and instigated an agere contra, to encourage His disciples not to attach themselves to human norms, giving them a divine character and forgetting God, but rather to ascend from creatures to the Creator.
Yet, in relation to the Law He gave to Moses on Mount Sinai, Our Lord did not give freedom to follow it or not, as it is eternal. The Ten Commandments cannot be altered; they are fixed and perennial, and are to be practised until the end of the world by all men and women, without adaptations to fleeting whims. As for the other precepts of the Mosaic Law, He came not “to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Mt 5:17). They became obsolete because “now that faith [in Jesus Christ] has come, we are no longer under a custodian” (Gal 3:25). St. Irenaeus explains this very clearly: “Those precepts, therefore, which implied bondage, and which were mere signs, were revoked by the liberty of the New Testament. But those natural laws which are proper to those who are free, and are common to all, were reinforced and augmented, abundantly granting to men the gift of knowing God as Father by adoption, of loving Him with their whole heart, and of following His word steadfastly.”10 The same Saint further comments: “the words of the Decalogue […] remain permanently with us, expanded and amplified, but not nullified by reason of His coming in the flesh.”11
The spirit of the world
6 He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honours Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me; 7 in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. 8 You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
Jesus’ reply does not signify a censure of the practice of hand washing before eating. We also do this today, for hygienic purposes, without becoming stuck fast to a temporal law that imposes worldly ways. If, however, there were a decree to do so for love of God, it would be legitimate.
Those who love the world, like the Pharisees, tend to focus more on the principles of social relations than on the Law of God, for, in practice, they live as though God did not exist. But they observe certain human laws, contrary to divine Law, with utmost precision. For such people, life’s ultimate end is fulfilled on earth and, finally, the payment they receive is reduced to what others think of them.
We must be mindful, in our daily life, not to value the opinion of others over that of God. What matters, above all, is His judgement of us! His Law is extremely serious and transgressing it brings dire consequences. Someone who infringes a traffic law can be penalized with a fine; but those who violate a divine Commandment may find the gates of Heaven closed to them and be condemned to hell for all eternity!
The hideous defect of hypocrisy
Jesus therefore confronts the Pharisees and recriminates them, citing the phrase from Isaiah: “This people honours Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.” In other words, their efforts in meticulously observing a series of external rules were merely human. Despite acting so from a supposedly religious motive, and praising the Lord with their lips, their heart was far from Him. They erred by practicing a devotion of appearances; the ablutions gave them the smug satisfaction of considering themselves free of impurity, without a thought to the vices that stained their souls. While in their hearts they harboured everything which Jesus went on to enumerate—“evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, and malice,” among other things—, they maintained the idea that the inner man was naturally pure, particularly if he were a Pharisee. They supposed that in the externals they would find peace of conscience and a means of concealing their spiritual shortcomings. Consequently, the foremost title they received from the Saviour was that of “hypocrites”!
Hypocrisy is a hideous defect—far more widespread than we think!—which produces a dissociation between the words and deeds of a person and his thoughts and desires. The hypocrite is akin to the “father of lies” (Jn 8:44), for this is precisely the devil’s method: he uses winning words, giving the impression of wanting to bestow benefits, yet his intentions are noxious.
While this Sunday’s Gospel does not include verses 9 to 13, they further clarify this teaching of the Divine Master: “You have a fine way of rejecting the Commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition” (Mk 7:9). The Pharisees, in fact, even transformed these norms, which should have been directed to the supernatural, into a type of idolatry. They uprooted the authentic moral precepts and created their own religion, at variance from the true one, devoid of religious character and separated from God, because they leaned on worldly dictates, established by the social life of the time. They divinized human law and desacralized and humanized the divine Law!
Jesus provided an example (cf. Mk 7:10-13) to show how they distorted the Law, emptying it of its substance and falsifying the customs that were based on it: In their graspingness, the Pharisees employed a ruse in order to keep the money which, in view of the Fourth Commandment of the Decalogue, every son is obliged to supply to support his aging parents and contribute to their welfare. Instead of giving their parents the amount necessary to live, the Pharisees consecrated it as an offering to God and considered themselves exempt from their filial obligation.
Jesus uses an enigma to attract the crowd to Himself
14 He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear Me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”
“He summoned the crowd again,” for it had withdrawn and was somewhat dispersed. No doubt this dispersal stemmed from deficient religious formation. How frequently people focus on their concrete problems, even in the presence of the Saviour!
To attract the crowd’s attention, He proffered a type of enigma, in a typically middle-eastern style: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” It may be assumed that this sparked an outcry, a discussion to uncover the meaning of that phrase. They were, however, unable to unravel it… Only later, having arrived at the house, did the disciples ask Jesus about the parable, and He explained to them what they had not understood (cf. Mk 7:17-20).
A person is defined by his intentions
21 “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. 23 All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Our Lord was breaking with the aforementioned Pharisaic theory of the “closed universe,” when “He declared all foods clean” (Mk 7:19), namely, that all creatures are neutral. Matter assimilated by man is not impure; it is man, rather, who makes things good or bad, according to the use he makes of them. Consequently, the “manufacturer” of impurities lies within the heart of every human, on account of being conceived in original sin and inclined to evil. Without the aid of grace, man is a veritable abyss of miseries, an agent of folly and iniquity, unable to remain faithful to the practice of the Commandments in a stable manner through personal effort.
This corruption depends chiefly on his intentions, for although, on one hand, it is impossible to perform an action that is holy per se, with a perverse purpose in mind, it is, on the other, possible for a person to find himself bombarded with evil images and remain unscathed by them, as long as he does not give his adherence. Accordingly, we should not be alarmed when, for example, a shameful thought, suggested by the devil, springs to mind; as long as the heart does not consent to it and rejects it, we can rest assured…
Impurity of soul is the “bone of contention” of this debate between the Divine Teacher and the Pharisees. Jesus shows how ridiculous it is to imagine that by physical contact with an object, the soul is contaminated. Obviously, if the body is used to offend God, the soul is stained, but such an act stems from an evil desire of the intelligence and the will—powers of the soul—while the body was merely the instrument for carrying out the illicit act.
III – Our Lips Should Agree with Our Heart!
God gave us an eternal Law which He engraved on our soul; on Sinai He consigned this Law to us written on stone tablets, and finally expressed it, visible and living, in Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh who dwelt among us, “to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37), so that we would all have perfect knowledge of it.
However, from the moment in which Adam and Eve flouted this Law in Paradise, and, when tried, opted not to practise virtue but to give in to the devil’s enticements to the point of committing sin, the human tendency is to forget the Word and the Law.
Yet God desires our entire acceptance of the immutable and eternal Law; we must be “doers of the word and not hearers only” (Jas 1:22). He wants our interior to agree entirely with our lips; these must proclaim that which overflows from the heart, as Our Lord affirmed: “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). It is true that we should translate the doctrine that has been bequeathed to us into words, attitudes, gestures, decoration of settings, ceremonial, and in our very selves. However, to avoid falling into the Pharisaical error, we must first progress in the spiritual life, transforming the soul and attaining the greatest possible union of thoughts and ways with Our Lord Jesus Christ; the rest will come as a consequence! It must be He who, by His grace, will purify our interior, making it fruitful in goodness and works of justice.
If we do not have the means to make as perfect an offering to God as we would like, let us offer Him the little we have, but motivated by an excellent intention and with our whole soul… It will be like the widow’s mite praised by Jesus in the Gospel (cf. Mk 12:41-44): she gave only two small coins, yet she wanted to surrender her heart!
How is my interior?
The Liturgy of this Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time is summed up in the question: where have I set my heart? Do my lips praise God, while my interior is far from the Law? How often do I choose consonance with the world, over consonance with Our Lord? Do I put God at the centre of my life, or myself?
All our actions bear on our eternal destiny and our supernatural vocation; therefore, we are called to be upright in the sight of God, to love Him, to respect His Laws with an elevated spirit, and to be fervent in the practice of sanctity. Let us ask the Blessed Virgin to obtain for us extraordinary graces that will enkindle our hearts and make our lips burst forth with what our heart sings and proclaims! ◊
1 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. I, q.25, a.6, ad 4.
2 ROYO MARÍN, OP, Antonio. Teología de la perfección cristiana. Madrid: BAC, 2006, p.286.
3 BONSIRVEN, SJ, Joseph. Le judaïsme palestinien au temps de Jésus-Christ. 2.ed. Paris: Gabriel Beauchesne, 1934, t.I, p.265-267.
4 TUYA, OP, Manuel de; SALGUERO, OP, José. Introducción a la Biblia. Madrid: BAC, 1967, v.II, p.508.
5 Cf. KELIM. M 17, 14. In: BONSIRVEN, SJ, Joseph (Ed.). Textes rabbiniques des deux premiers siècles chrétiens. Roma: Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1955, p.665.
6 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, op. cit., q.103, a.5.
7 Cf. OHALOT. M 1-3. In: BONSIRVEN, Textes rabbiniques des deux premiers siècles chrétiens, op. cit., p.672-674.
8 Cf. BERAKHOT. Y 12a; HAGIGÁ. M 3, 1; ZEBAHIM. B 11, 7-8; KELIM. M 25, 6-9. In: BONSIRVEN, Textes rabbiniques des deux premiers siècles chrétiens, op. cit., p.107; 283; 573; 668.
9 YADAYIM. M 2, 3. In: BONSIRVEN, Textes rabbiniques des deux premiers siècles chrétiens, op. cit., p.707.
10 ST. IRENAEUS OF LYONS. Adversus Hæreses. L.IV, c.16, n.5: MG 7, 1018.
11 Idem, n.4.