This week, after a tour through John 6, we return to our “Year B” reading of Mark’s Gospel. It is as if, having discovered Jesus in the Eucharist, we now want to follow him more closely, and hear his words of eternal life.
Our Gospel reading this week revolves around the word “defile.” The Pharisees “observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.” The translation is a little unclear: we are talking about ritual uncleanness; the King James says “defiled.”
Jesus responds, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” You are not what you eat; you are what you do: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”
But even “defile” is a bit of an unclear translation. In fact, the Greek word is “make common.” This takes some translation. We might tend to hear the contrast “clean-unclean” as if all things are clean, and then some things get dirty. To the contrary, the Old Testament distinction was between “common” and “sanctified.” The “defiled” hands, or hearts, are not ones that have become dirty; they are ones that have not been made holy. They are, in the ritual language of Scripture, “common.”
That isn’t to say, of course, that we can’t make the ordinary holy. The point is that we need to make it holy. Meals can be holy events – but only if we make them holy, by lifting up our hearts, at least, in prayer.
Our Gospel reading has two connected themes that subserve this main theme of what makes things holy. The first is “human traditions” versus “divine commandments.” Now, the problem here is not that they have human traditions. The problem is that they do not have divine commandments. Human traditions are fine – they can be ways of sanctifying our lives. But not if we ignore God’s word.
The second subtheme is like the first: the distinction between the exterior and the interior. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Now, again, honoring God with our lips – or our hands, and hand-washings – is not a bad thing. But it needs to express what is within us. That is what really matters.
The problem with human traditions is when we are more worried about pleasing men than with pleasing God. God sees our hearts. And he speaks his word to pierce us to the heart.
Thus the Lectionary pairs with this Gospel reading a passage from Deuteronomy about obeying God’s word. “You shall not add to what I command you [‘the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin upon you’] nor subtract from it. Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.”
Obviously we can “add” in the sense that not every step of our life is directly explained in Deuteronomy – as Christians, we add many observances that remind us of Christ and our Christian dignity. But we must not add in a way distracts us from the piercing word of God. All our observances must drive us back to obedience to that word.
Why? First, because it is wise. He has the words of everlasting life. He tells us the way, so that the nations will say, “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.” His word is good. It makes us distinctly wise because human wisdom cannot match the wisdom of God’s word.
Second, because it is part of God’s closeness to us: “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.” Listening to his word is a practice of God’s distinct presence to us as Christians. That is what makes us holy, not common – not our brilliant new ideas.
Finally, we begin this week a five-week tour of the Letter of James, the great instruction on acting on our faith.
He begins with the well-known words, “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” But then he specifies: “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.” Hear his word.
And what does his word tell us? “Religious that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction.” Action.
What opportunities are there in your day and week to let the word of God be planted in your heart?