22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – 30th August 2015

"Pure, unspoilt religion"

Scripture Reading – Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus, and they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. For the Pharisees, and the Jews in general, follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes. So these Pharisees and scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?’ He answered, ‘It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so rightly prophesied in this passage of scripture:

This people honours me only with lip-service,
while their hearts are far from me.
The worship they offer me is worthless,
the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.

You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.’ He called the people to him again and said, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean. For it is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean.’


“Pure, unspoilt religion”

by Fr Hugh O’Donnell SDB

There is a type of religion that Jesus warns us about, that is, one that tries to control its followers by a multiplicity of rules. Jesus had little time for it mainly because it doesn’t go deep enough. It remains on the surface and is quick to find fault and condemn.

Jesus is interested in a person’s heart, that place where you are most yourself. That is the place where the real encounter with his Father takes place.

‘Unspoilt religion’, to use a phrase from this morning’s reading from the letter of St James, is having a heart for the poor and those who are oppressed – those often thought to be ‘unworthy’ – like some of the disciples who didn’t wash their hands before eating and so found themselves described as ‘sinners’.

The list of real ‘sin’ that Jesus lays before the scribes and Pharisees who have come to find fault with him, makes clear how the heart space in each of us can be contaminated by the negative energy of ‘avarice, envy, slander, adultery, pride, foolishness’ but not by how often you fails to wash your hands!

What Jesus does is take the Jewish tradition and distil it for its wisdom and understanding, its recognition, for instance of how close God is to us and for its prophetic message to care for those on the margins of society. God is neither lawyer nor judge. God is all heart as we learn from the life of Jesus, the one who calls on our heart at all hours for surrender and acceptance; the one who loved us into being, who calls all of us his children.

I remember a story of my father as a young Garda being dispatched to a suburban orchard. The owner had caught a boy stealing apples and locked him in a shed until the Law arrived in the form of my father. In due course, the case was called and the boy was charged, the penalty being five shillings or a period of detention. At this point his mother had pleaded with the judge that she was a widow and could not pay. Moved by her predicament, my father had reached into his pocket and handed the lady the cost of the fine. He always had a heart for the underdog and thought very badly of the farmer for his ill-treatment of the boy.

There is a higher law, he seemed to know, whose reach is farther is deeper, the law of ‘pure, unspoilt religion’, the law of love.


It might seem at first that today’s gospel has very little to say to us. The people of Jesus’ time were concerned about preserving their ancient customs of washing hands and utensils before eating. This seems to have nothing to do with us and our problems today.  We find it hard to understand why Jesus wasted his time on such seemingly insignificant questions. If we had to take sides in the discussion, we would certainly agree with those well-mannered Pharisees who insisted on something as obvious as washing your hands before eating. It is just good manners, but we would be missing the point of this gospel passage if we were to reduce it to a simple matter of politeness. Jesus did not engage in controversy with the Pharisees simply to excuse his disciples from the rules of polite behaviour. Properly understood, his words are an urgent call to conversion also for us.


I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

After he was rejected by the people of his own town (Mk 6, 1-6), Jesus began evangelizing the people of Gennesaret. He sent out his disciples for the first time (Mk 6, 7-13), and they worked wonders (Mk 6, 30-44.45-53), enjoying unprecedented success (Mk 6, 54-56).  Some scribes came from Jerusalem and criticised the disciples (Mk 7, 2) because they ate without observing the traditional rules and customs      (Mk 7, 5). The evangelist sees the need to explain the problem to his readers who are unfamiliar with the issue (Mk 7, 3-4).

Jesus’ reply is somewhat condensed in the liturgical version we read today. He focuses not on the rules that govern eating, nor on ritual purity, but on the real meaning of purity.  Jesus changes the discussion from the need to preserve external, visible purity to the need for purity of heart.

His argument is a good one. He quotes Isaiah and goes beyond the matter under discussion, saying that the practice of washing hands and utensils before eating is an empty gesture, without heart, like mere words without obedience.  Certainly the Pharisees, his first listeners, were taken by surprise and felt they were being harshly judged (Mk 7, 7-7).  Jesus later clarifies but adds a more serious charge. They put aside God’s law to cling to human traditions (Mk 7, 8). Such a severe judgment is, at first sight, far removed from the matter being discussed, and requires further explanation, which Jesus directs, not just to his critics, but to all the people gathered there. What he says is not a matter of argument, but genuine teaching to be accepted in the heart. Nothing makes a person impure. It is the person himself or herself that makes things impure. The person must be on guard, because it is in the heart that impurity arises (Mk 7, 14 -15.23). People must purify their hearts, not their hands.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

It is hard for us to understand the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees, especially if we forget the importance of ritual purity in the culture and worship of the time. Ritual impurity did not allow access to God and led to social exclusion.  Jesus rejected this system, not because it was harmful in itself, but because in practice it excused people from internal personal obedience to God.  Following traditions and social customs that do not touch the heart is the surest way to detach the heart from God. Insisting on what is written, makes it impossible to search for God’s will.

Jesus’ criticism is devastating and, sadly, is relevant in our own day. God demands purity in the intimacy of the heart, for it is there that evil is born. His disciples are not to observe customs and practices that do not foster purity of heart, whatever others may think of them.  They should not be concerned with what others think of them, but what God thinks. Holding fast to what has always been done is not a valid excuse for failing to do what God wants of us here and now.

The Pharisees were not known for their delicate manners but as serious and devout believers. They wanted to live their relationship with God in such a complete and continuous way that they would always be in a fit state to enter into communion with him. They tried to live their whole lives as if they were in the temple. This meant living always in a state of purity which they did not want to lose, and to reach that purity they were ready to submit to an infinity of precepts.

If they did not succeed in observing these precepts all the time, they had to recover that external purity, and for this they depended on specific customs and practices. It was so important for them to remain in the presence of God that they had multiplied the rules. Their intentions could not have been better.  They wanted to dedicate their whole lives to God, and all their daily activity from dawn to dusk. This demanded the observance of a strict and wide-ranging religious discipline. Among all these precepts there were those that referred to food. They believed that it was possible in certain conditions to give praise to God also while eating.

For them it was unthinkable that religious people, as Jesus and his disciples claimed to be, should violate these norms by eating without washing their hands. In defence of his disciples, Jesus accused the critics. What the disicples are doing is not wrong. They do it in order to be free for something better. The Pharisees honour God with their lips but their hearts are far from God’s love. Their worship is empty of content because they do not submit their lives to God’s law.  With the best will, the Pharisees thought they were pleasing God by keeping their hands clean, but attached less importance to cleanness of heart.

They excused themselves from obedience to God by following old ways and ancient norms. They attached too much value to custom, and to what had always been done, and not enough importance to doing God’s will. Following the traditions of the elders meant, in this case, leaving aside God’s will. Like pious people of every age, the Pharisees were good intelligent people. By staying faithful to what has always been done, we don’t need to bother trying to discover what God wants of us at any moment. Habit excuses us from the task of discerning what God wants of us here and now. Rules, whether ancient or modern, are clear and precise, and known to the whole world.

Sticking to the rules means there is little need for discernment. Good Pharisees were sincere in their piety, as we are, but that kind of piety transforms us into lazy servants of our God.  We do not need to make an effort to discover what God wants of us, or how he wants us to serve him better. We take refuge instead in what we believe God has asked of us, or in how others serve God.  Jesus strongly criticized this illusion of many devout people. Clinging to traditions may ensure clean hands but does nothing to change the heart. It is a hypocritical way of serving God who made both hands and heart. Jesus insists on purity in the heart where evil is conceived, and not just in the hands where it is delivered. He wants cleanness at the root and not just in the means. He values purity of heart more than clean hands

It is not very difficult, therefore, to see what Jesus was saying to us when he defended his disciples with their unwashed hands. He is certainly not just talking about good manners. Being a Christian is much more than manners or politeness.  Jesus certainly does not confuse faith in God with polite behaviour, as many who are regarded as good Christians do, and he does not confuse worship of God with the culture of our times.  His objective is not to teach good manners to these “unclean” disciples.  We, especially if we are older Christians, born into a Christian society that existed in the past, are inclined to confuse the observance of pious customs with the worship of God. We think that what was good in the past is good forever.  We think that if we are faithful to the traditions of the past, we are being faithful to ourselves and to God.

We are not very different from the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. Would that we were even as devout as they were! It is very easy to feel good just because we behave well, or, better still, just because we do nothing wrong. We think that if our hands are clean, or if others do not see that they are dirty, then our hearts are also clean. Only God can see into the heart. We think we are better than others, only because we think they are worse than we are. If we continue to be concerned with external cleanness, we will not be serious about purifying our hearts.  Jesus reminds us today that God is not interested in how we appear to others.  God is concerned with what is in our hearts. He does not look to see if we do what has always been done.  What God wants of us is to seek his will and accept it with all our hearts.

We should not forget that the teaching of Jesus led him into conflict with the authorities in Jerusalem and the pious people of his time. It is quite clear that his intention was not just to defend his disciples but to teach us the meaning of true purity for believers which enables them to enter into relationship with God. It may not be hygienic, but Jesus’ disciples can eat even with unwashed hands, provided they keep their hearts pure for God.

Those who follow the teaching of Jesus direct all their efforts to keeping their hearts pure, because it is in the heart that evil and malice are born. The heart is the source of all sin. They are more concerned with the evil that afflicts the world and less worried about getting their hands soiled in the world. As long as evil does not enter the heart or come from the heart, the disciple of Jesus is free from observance of external norms.  Christ does not demand that his disciples appear good, provided they try to keep their hearts pure.

Anyone who lives by the teaching of Jesus is exempt from all traditions and customs, however old or valid they may be. He is excused, not because he despises customs and traditions, but because he does not put so much value on them that he forgets that God alone is the law of life. Jesus has freed his disciples from all that does not come from the heart. Nothing is worthy of obedience if it is only a matter of appearance and does not purify the heart. Jesus wants, above all, to free our hearts from evil so that God alone can occupy them. Then everything that comes from the heart will be good, and our hands will be pure, even if sometimes they happen to be dirty. We should not forget that only the pure of heart will see God (Mt 5, 8).


Father of might and power,
every good and perfect gift
comes down to us from you.
Implant in our hearts the love of your name,
increase our zeal for your service,
nourish what is good in us
and tend it with watchful care.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.






Music used in the reflection: “Soulmates” by Lee Rosevere (CC-BY-NC)