This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23:
When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 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 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.
“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.”
Where does virtue lie, and what role do rules have in forming and promoting it? That tension appears in today’s Gospel reading, but it also reminds me of a story from my previous career in security.
One customer of our services imposed severe restrictions on operations at their locations, employing us to enforce them, in order to resolve a shockingly significant series of losses due to what’s euphemistically known as “internal shrinkage.” Put simply, the employees had been pilfering at will in both cash and goods, and the company had brought in a new loss-prevention team to deal with it. The new rules created a lot of anger from their employees, but we were instructed to stay firm and to report anyone who asked for variances. (The enforcement came almost entirely from my department.)
At the time, we didn’t know much about the issue, but after a year or so the customer came out to brief everyone. After revealing the depth and breadth of the losses, their LP director got philosophical about the situation. He blamed the company for allowing the situation to develop and for not having the kind of strict scrutiny and security regimen that would have eliminated the temptation to pilfer in the first place. Without those kinds of rules, people lose sight of virtue, he explained, and theft starts transforming into a legitimate form of compensation, especially when it becomes a cultural norm.
I’ve often thought about that wisdom in terms of sin, and in terms of exactly the kind of conflict in today’s Gospel reading. What happens when we rely on our own instincts for right and wrong in the absence of rules? And what happens when we worship the laws rather than embrace the formation they bring? In some ways, it’s a chicken-and-egg question, but Jesus provides the definitive answer in one of my favorite Gospel episodes.
Moses brought the law to the people, not once but three times. The first Laws of God were the Ten Commandments, given to Moses while the Israelites were busy violating its first law with the golden calf. Moses destroyed the tablets, and the Lord provided a new set, but the Israelites remained a “stiff-necked people” who only grudgingly went along with them. In order to form the Israelites into a nation of priests that would bring God’s Word to the world, Moses delivered more than 600 laws intended to focus the hearts of Israelites on virtue and love of the Lord.
In today’s Gospel, however, Jesus accuses the Pharisees essentially of turning the law into an idol — an end unto itself to be worshipped, rather than a path to the commandments and God’s love for us all. They have lost the purpose of the law, which is formation for the purpose of ministering to others rather than an incantation for the security of a few in the know. Washing one’s hands before a meal isn’t going to save your soul; the acts of purity is supposed to inform one’s internal formation and properly dispose them for doing the Lord’s work.
Put another way: following the rules may suffice for keeping one out of trouble, but unless one allows its formation to take hold, it’s nothing more than rote. The law has value in formation, but without that formation, it’s merely a set of behaviors whose only secular value is to keep the Pharisees off your back. Jesus rebukes them both for their blindness to the law’s meaning and their diminution of it to a form of public pestilence.
Rules and laws have a formative value in almost any setting, including the example from my previous work. That applies especially to sin, because humanity is particularly inclined both to sin and to rationalizing it into our cultures. That may be especially true today, where many of the cultural rules and mores aimed at curtailing sin and temptation have been stood on their heads.
Some of the impurities Christ decries in today’s Gospel have not just been unleashed by modern society but celebrated by it — unchastity, licentiousness, greed, envy, deceit, and so on. Many forms of these are handsomely rewarded within our culture rather than rebuked or punished. That sets up incentives not just to sin more but to rationalize it away as “natural,” “healthy,” a matter of “perspective,” and to deny the existence of truth in favor of worshiping the emotions of the moment. That’s what happened to the employees of that customer when theft became normalized, and it’s what happens to us when sin becomes normalized.
God gave us the Law of the Ten Commandments to understand His virtue and to lead lives of virtue ourselves. He wrote those laws on our hearts at our creation, but mere compliance isn’t the point. Jesus tells us that we have to allow the law to grow in our hearts — by which is meant the intersection of the will and the intellect, where decisions are made — in order to embrace its purity and His salvation. As James writes in our second reading today, “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls. … [K]eep oneself unstained by the world.”
It’s that virtue that will bring us to Christ and to salvation. It has to come from the inside out, in part by forming ourselves from the outside in. Otherwise, we are nothing but hall monitors and slackers looking for the laziest path to heaven, and finding instead the broad road that leads … well, you know.
The front-page image is “Christ Accused by the Pharisees” by Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1308-11. On display at the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.