Lectio: 22nd Sunday of ordinary time (B)
What is pure and what is impure
Jesus fulfills people’s desires: to live in peace with God
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send Your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that You read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible,
You helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of Your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to Your voice in creation and in the scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May Your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, may experience the force of Your resurrection and witness to others that You are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of You, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us Your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to the reading:
● The Gospel of the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time describes the religious customs of Jesus’ time, speaks of the Pharisees who taught the people these practices and customs and of Jesus’ teaching concerning this matter. Many of these practices and customs had lost their meaning and made people’s lives difficult. The Pharisees saw sin in everything and threatened with punishment in hell! For instance, to eat without washing one’s hands was considered a sin. But these practices and customs continued to be passed down and taught from fear or from superstition. Do you know of any present religious practice that has lost its meaning but which is still being taught? In our reading of the text we shall try to look at Jesus’ attitude concerning what He says about the Pharisees and what He teaches concerning the religious practices taught by the Pharisees.
● The text of this Sunday’s liturgy presents some verses and leaves out other verses to shorten the text and make it more understandable. For the sake of completeness, we use the whole text and offer comments also on the verses omitted from the liturgy. The parts omitted in the liturgy are in italics.
b) A division of the text to help with the reading:
Mark 7:1-2: The attack of the Pharisees and the freedom of the disciples
Mark 7:3-4: Mark’s explanation of the Tradition of the Elders
Mark 7:5: The Scribes and Pharisees criticize the behavior of the disciples of Jesus
Mark 7:6-8: Jesus’ strong reply concerning the incoherence of the Pharisees
Mark 7:9-13: A concrete example of how the Pharisees empty God’s commandment of any meaning
Mark 7:14-16: Jesus’ explanation to the people: a new way to God
Mark 7:17-23: Jesus’ explanation to his disciples
Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. 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).) 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?" He responded, "Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.' You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition." He went on to say, "How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and 'Whoever curses father or mother shall die.' Yet you say, 'If a person says to father or mother, "Any support you might have had from me is qorban"' (meaning, dedicated to God), you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things." He summoned the crowd again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile." ) When he got home away from the crowd his disciples questioned him about the parable. He said to them, "Are even you likewise without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) "But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile."
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) What pleased or touched you most in this text? Why?
b) According to the text, what were the practices that the Pharisees taught the people? For what does Jesus criticize the Pharisees?
c) In this text, what is the new way that Jesus shows the people to reach God?
d) In the name of the “tradition of the elders” they do not observe the Commandment of God. Does this happen today? Where? When?
e) The Pharisees were practicing Jews, but their faith was divorced from the lives of the people. Jesus criticizes them for this. Would Jesus criticize us today? Why?
5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
a) The context of then and of today:
i) In this lectio let us take a close look at Jesus’ attitude concerning the question of purity. Mark had already mentioned this matter. In Mk 1:23-28, Jesus drives an impure devil away. In Mk 1:40-45, He heals a leper. In Mk 5:25-34, He heals a woman considered impure. On many other occasions, Jesus touches those physically sick without fear of becoming impure. Here, in chapter 7, Jesus helps people and His disciples to deepen the idea of purity and the laws on purity.
ii) For centuries, in order for the Jews not to contract impurity, contact with pagans and eating with them was forbidden. In the 70’s, when Mark was writing his Gospel, some converted Jews said, “Now that we are Christians we must leave behind old practices that keep us apart from converted pagans!” But other converted Jews thought they had to continue to observe the laws concerning purity. Jesus’ attitude, as described in today’s Gospel, helps to overcome this problem.
b) A commentary on the text:
Mark 7:1-2: The control of the Pharisees and the freedom of the disciples
The Pharisees and some Scribes who were in Jerusalem watch Jesus’ disciples eating bread with impure hands. There are three points worth noting: (i) The Scribes are from Jerusalem, the capital! This means that they had come to observe and control Jesus’ actions. (ii) The disciples do not wash their hands before eating! This means that their living with Jesus gives them the courage to transgress the norms imposed by tradition and that they had a feeling for life. (iii) The practice of washing hands, which to this day is an important hygienic matter, had acquired a religious meaning that served to control and discriminate against people.
Mark 7:3-4: Mark’s explanation concerning the tradition of the elders
“The tradition of the elders” passed on the norms to be observed by people so as to achieve the purity required by law. The observance of purity was considered a very serious matter. They thought that an impure person could not receive the blessing promised by God to Abraham. The norms concerning purity were taught in such a way that when people observed them, they could follow the road to God, source of peace. However, rather than being a source of peace, these norms were chains, a form of slavery. It was practically impossible for the poor to observe these norms and laws. Thus, the poor were despised and considered ignorant and cursed people who did not know the law (Jn 7:49).
Mark 7:5: The Scribes and Pharisees criticize the behavior of Jesus’ disciples
The Scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?” They pretend to be interested in knowing the reason for the behavior of the disciples. In fact, they are criticizing Jesus for allowing His disciples to transgress the norms concerning purity. The scribes and doctors of the law were the guardians of doctrine. They dedicated their lives to the study of the Law of God and taught people how to observe completely the Law of God, especially the norms concerning purity. The Pharisees were a kind of fraternity, whose main preoccupation was to observe all the laws concerning purity. The word Pharisee means set apart. They endeavored that, by the perfect observance of the laws concerning purity, people would become pure, set apart and holy as the Laws of the tradition required! Because of the exemplary witness of their lives in following the laws of the times, they wielded great authority in the villages of Galilee.
Mark 7:6-8: Jesus’ strong reply concerning the Pharisees’ lack of consistence
Jesus replies quoting Isaiah: This people honors me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. Their reverence of me is worthless; the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments. You put aside the commandment of God to observe human traditions (Is 29:13). By insisting on the norms concerning purity, the Pharisees had emptied the commandments of the law of God of all relevance. Jesus immediately gives a concrete example of how they render the commandment of God insignificant.
Mark 7:9-13: A concrete example of how the Pharisees render the commandment of God inconsistent
The “tradition of the elders” taught that a son who dedicates his possessions to the temple, may not use these possessions to help his parents in need. Thus, in the name of tradition, they rendered negligible the fourth commandment to love father and mother. There still are such people today. They seem to be observant, but only externally. Internally, their heart is far from God! As one of our hymns says, “His name is Jesus Christ and He is hungry, He lives by the side of the road. And when people see Him, they move on to get to church quickly!” In Jesus’ days, people, in their wisdom, did not agree with all that they were taught. They hoped that one day the Messiah would come to show them some other way to be pure. This hope comes to pass in Jesus.
Mark 7:14-16: Jesus explains to the people: a new way to reach God
Jesus says to the crowd, “Nothing that goes into someone from outside can make that person unclean!” (Mk 7:15). Jesus reverses things: that which is impure does not come from the outside to the inside, as the doctors of the law taught, but from the inside to the outside. Thus, no one need ask any more whether this food or this drink is pure or not. Jesus places the question of purity and impurity on a higher level, on the level of ethical behavior. He shows a way to God and, thus, fulfills the deepest desire of the crowd. Jesus ends His explanation with an expression that He likes to use: Anyone who has ears for listening should listen! Or: “That’s it! You have heard Me! Now try to understand!” In other words, use your heads and common sense and look at things through your experience of life.
Mark 7:17-23: Jesus’ explanation to His disciples
The disciples did not understand what Jesus meant. When they went home they asked Him for an explanation. Jesus was astounded. He thought that they had understood. In His explanation He goes deep into the question concerning purity. He declares all food pure! No food that goes into a human being from the outside can make him impure, because it does not enter the heart but only the stomach and then goes into the sewer. That which makes a person impure, says Jesus, is what comes from the inside, from the heart, and that poisons human relationships. Then He mentions “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly.” Thus, in many ways, by means of word, action or living together, Jesus helped people to be pure. By means of the word, He healed lepers (Mk 1:40-44), drove out impure spirits (Mk 1:26,39; 3:15,22; etc.) and overcame death, source of all impurity. By means of action, the woman excluded and considered impure is healed (Mk 5:25-34). By means of living with Jesus, the disciples have the courage to imitate Jesus who, without any fear of contamination, ate with people who were considered impure (Mk 2:15-17).
c) Further information:
The laws concerning purity and impurity in Jesus’ days
The people then were greatly concerned with purity. The norms concerning purity pointed to the necessary conditions for coming into the presence of God and for feeling right before Him. One could not go before God in any old way. Because God is Holy! The Law said: “Be holy, for I, Yahweh your God, am holy!” (Lev 19:2). Anyone who was not pure could not appear before God to receive the blessing promised to Abraham.
For us to understand the seriousness of these laws concerning purity, we may remember what used to happen in our Church fifty years ago. Before the Second Vatican Council, to go to communion in the morning, people had to fast from midnight. Anyone who went to communion without fasting committed a mortal sin called sacrilege. We thought that a little food or drink made us impure to receive the consecrated host.
In Jesus’ times too there were many matters and activities that made a person impure and therefore not possible to come before God: touching a leper, eating with a publican, eating without washing one’s hands, touching blood or a dead body and many other things. All these things made a person impure, and any contact with that person contaminated others. That is why “impure” people had to be avoided. People lived apart, always threatened by so many impure things that threatened their lives. All were afraid of everyone and everything.
Now, with the coming of Jesus, suddenly everything changes! By believing in Jesus, it was possible to achieve purity and feel good before God without having to observe all the laws and norms of the “tradition of the elders.” It was a real and personal liberation! The Good News proclaimed by Jesus released people from a defensive attitude and restored to them the taste for life, the joy of being children of God, without fear of being happy!
6. Praying Psalm 24 (23)
Who can climb the mountain of God!
To Yahweh belong the earth and all it contains,
the world and all who live there;
it is He who laid its foundations on the seas,
on the flowing waters fixed it firm.
Who shall go up to the mountain of Yahweh?
Who shall take a stand in His holy place?
The clean of hands and pure of heart,
whose heart is not set on vanities,
who does not swear an oath in order to deceive.
Such a one will receive blessing from Yahweh,
saving justice from the God of His salvation.
Such is the people that seeks Him,
that seeks Your presence, God of Jacob.
Gates, lift high your heads,
raise high the ancient gateways,
and the king of glory shall enter!
Who is He, this king of glory?
It is Yahweh, strong and valiant,
Yahweh valiant in battle.
Gates, lift high your heads,
raise high the ancient gateways,
and the king of glory shall enter!
Who is He, this king of glory?
Yahweh Sabaoth, He is the king of glory.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank You for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May Your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which Your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, Your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.