Jesus’ ongoing controversy with the Pharisees heats up in today’s Gospel. Some of his disciples were eating their meals without washing their hands, and the Pharisees objected to this. The disciples violated the tradition of the elders, they maintained.
Jesus is sharp with them, quoting Isaiah: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines mere human precepts.” The first reading, from the Book of Deuteronomy, would surely support the Lord. Moses proclaims, “In your observance of the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.”
Not included in today’s Gospel reading is the example of qorban that Jesus gives. Qorban was a practice of dedicating something to the temple. Jesus points out that one could renege even on the support one owed one’s parents by dedicating it to the temple, thereby disregarding God’s command. This would be an instance of both adding to and subtracting from the law.
Jesus has a case. The law of Moses nowhere demands washing for ordinary meals, providing one was not compromised by an “unclean” object (Lv 15:11). We might ask ourselves: How could washing undermine a law of God? It certainly would not. Jesus is clearly using the controversy to discuss how we can lose ourselves in traditions and rules while ignoring what really matters.
The big question at hand is, what does it mean to live a holy life under the law of God? But answers are not so easy. The law tells us to keep holy the Sabbath day. Pretty vague stuff. The Talmud, a Jewish compendium that wrestled with how to interpret the law, needed two whole tractates (260 pages) to wrestle with how this command ought to be lived out.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day strove to live such a devout life that they imitated the ritual purity that priests themselves needed at the temple. In their religious imagination, all Jews could or should live as a priestly people: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). The Pharisees might frame their posture as being particularly zealous in their faith and the law. What could be wrong with that?
It is clear in the Gospels that such a seemingly devout posture actually took a toll on the common people, whose ordinary lifestyle made it impossible for them to attain that level of observance. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter” (Mt 23:13).
In both this passge and in our Gospel reading today, Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites. The term is revealing. It means “pretender,” from the verb used in Greek drama for “playing a part.” It is simply the case that for some people intense devotion and commitment can, ironically, result in moral rigidity and an obtuse spirit. One looks devout, but without interior transformation one is really just a pretender playing a religious role.
We can think of Inspector Javert, the evil (or is he tragic?) inspector in Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Miserables. His commitment to the law produced extraordinary inflexibility and cruelty. He was not interested in the common good, which is the very purpose of law. His life is contrasted with that of the hero, Jean Valjean, who had broken the law several times but devoted his life to kindness and generosity.
In the Gospel, Jesus was not interested in canceling laws, whether ritual or otherwise. Nor is there any evidence that he dismissed his religious culture that practiced additional pious expressions of it. But he did regularly criticize misuse of laws, particularly when they were advanced on the backs of those least able to adhere to them.
We would do well to keep the premiere question always before us: What does it mean to live a holy life? And we would additionally do well to embrace the often-repeated dictum: In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things charity.