God made the human heart to reflect the divine heart. The purpose of the biblical law was to train the human heart in divine wisdom, to motivate it to respond as God’s own heart responds. The law of Moses was not an arbitrary pattern of life; it was in fact a way of becoming like the divine. God repeats this hope many times in the Hebrew Scriptures, as in Lv 19:2: “Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
‘The things that come out from within are what
Is there something in your life that encumbers your ability to turn to God?
Is there some human custom or reality that you consider more important than the Gospel?
How can you respond to those who believe that the laws of economics or politics or other human structures take priority over the teachings of Christ?
How to achieve this goal was a matter of broad discussion in the time of Jesus, and that is the context for this Sunday’s Gospel passage. The law of Moses never spells out its principles for purity legislation, but the laws taken together suggest a belief that certain circumstances hinder an encounter with God, especially those related to sex, contact with certain animals, the discharge of bodily fluids or states of illness and death. The law thus includes ritual washings as a way of overcoming these inevitable conditions (medical professionals today would probably agree with many of them). Any Israelite who observed these rituals of purification could approach God in confidence for prayer, sacrifice or thanksgiving.
Political realities in the centuries just before the life of Jesus raised problems that required legal adaptation. Foreign armies dominated Judea, bringing lifestyles that threatened to make Israelites unclean. Likewise, many Jews lived outside Israel in cities of mixed population, with a similarly threatening environment. Venturing outside one’s house for travel or labor risked unwitting exposure to any number of unclean things.
Unrelated to these developments but simultaneous with them, many Jewish families had adopted regular practices of daily prayer. Meals especially were times to give thanks to God. As a precaution, many would wash before eating to remove any potential source of impurity before they approached God in thanksgiving. The overall connection between purification and prayer was so strong that ritual bathing came to signify a spiritual transformation. A belief that ritual washing made one ready anew to encounter the divine almost certainly lay behind the ministry of John the Baptist.
The Pharisees were therefore stunned when some of Jesus’ disciples failed to wash before eating. They did not understand how one could obey God’s law without observing this adaptation to the circumstances of their day. Jesus drew on his own unique synthesis of the law to respond. If Israel followed the law to reflect God, then priority number one was to follow its most important commandment: to love God and neighbor (Mk 12:28-31). This kind of love is what made one able to encounter and reflect the divine. It was not bits of dust and dung clinging to one’s hands that hindered one’s ability to do this, but rather “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” When these warp the human heart, they distort the reflection of God for which it was made