A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

How clean is clean?

Radio and TV media have been almost incessant in reminding us of the dangers of communicable diseases.  Ebola in Africa was a case in point.  I understand now that when you go visit a sick relative or friend in the hospital, quite often you are asked to “gown up,” that is to say you wear a mask and gown in order to protect you from catching or communicating germs.

In the Gospel for the twenty second Sunday in Ordinary time [Mark 7: 1-23], Jesus becomes aware of how some Pharisees and Scribes have become very obsessive about cleanliness.  They even complain about the fact that some of Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before eating.  It was part of the Jewish ritual to do so.

Curiously enough, Jesus did not deny the accusation but he was most likely aware of the motivation behind the complaint since the Pharisees made such a big deal out of the non-washing.  What do you suppose was going on?

I would suggest that the “big deal” (the complaint) was most likely a way of focusing on the supposition  that by centering on the “external” would be a good way of veering away from the “internal.”  The “external” was the washing of the hands.  It was something that one could do alone.  The “internal” were the thoughts and feelings that often effected others.

However, and I think this was Jesus’ point, the “internal” was not a matter of focus for the Pharisees and Scribes.  Why?  Because feelings most likely resulted in actions.  The heart was considered the fount of feelings.  So if one felt angry, jealous, envious, or anything hostile, those feelings would frequently be transmitted into actions.  While washing hands was “external,” expressed hostile feelings were “internal.”  That is to say, those negative feelings (internal) affected the neighbor.  In fact, the Pharisees tended to be good about the external. hence their loud complaint about some of Jesus’ disciples.

Not washing hands was “external” and thus done alone.  Feeling angry or jealous was “internal” and, when expressed, affected neighbor.  So Jesus surfaced this point by telling the people around him:  “…Listen to me all of you, and understand.  There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”  [Mark 7:14-15]

What did Jesus mean by that?  In effect, he was putting the proper perspective on TRUE defilement.  It is not unwashed hands, but hostile thoughts (which often come to fruition) about others that cause true defilement.  You can wash your dirty hands, but that process includes you alone.  But feeling jealous, envious,  or angry usually affects others.  This is true defilement.

Maybe what we should ask ourselves is:  “What kind of a spiritual bath can I take to make me clean?” Well, what about the Sacrament of Reconciliation?





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