The readings of today give us an insight into nature of true religion. It is not the scrupulous and meticulous external observance of rules, laws, traditions and rituals. It is a loving, obedient relationship with God expressed in recognizing His presence in other human beings and rendering them loving and humble service. Prayers, rituals, Sacraments and religious practices only help us to practice this true religion in our daily lives.
The Law of Moseswas very important for the people of Israel.He assured the people that their God-given Law and their faithful observance of the Law would serve three purposes: a) it would help Israel survive as a people; b) it would make the people proud of their God and His Covenant; c) it would make neighboring nations marvel at the graciousness and justice of the God of Israel, at His closeness to His people and at their closeness to Him. Hence, Moses challenged the Israelites with the questions: “What great nation is there that has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to Him? What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” Moses cited the praise they would receive from neighboring nations as an additional reason for keeping the Law: “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.”
At the time of Jesus, the law was no longer a guideline helping people on their way to loving and serving God. Observing the law had become an end in itself. As Jesus indicates in today’s Gospel, many of the Old Testament laws were of human inventions. On the one hand, they helped those in authority keep control; on the other, people knew where they stood. If they externally observed the Law, they were “good”.
William Barclay in The Daily Study Bible tells the story of an old Jewish rabbi in the Roman prison diagnosed with acute dehydration, which would have led to his death. The prison guards insisted that the rabbi had been given his quota of drinking water. So the prison doctor and the officer in charge instructed the guards to watch the rabbi and ascertain what he was doing with his ration of water. They were shocked to find that the rabbi was using almost all his water for traditional ritual washing before prayer and meals.
Today’s Gospel tells us how the tradition-addicted Pharisees started questioning Jesus when his disciples omitted the ritual washing of handsin public before a meal. So Jesus today quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “These person honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is useless; the doctrines they teach are mere human regulations. They put human traditions before the commandments of God.”
We need to have a very clear understanding of religiosity and spirituality: Jesus sees through the religiosity of the Pharisees: 1) Lack of integrity 2) Exhibitionism 3) Ritualism 4) Legalism 5) Exploitation of the poor 6) Demand for recognition 7) Scandal to others 8) Not allowing people to become mature 9) Neglecting mercy and justice 10) Self centered
Spirituality: 1) Sensitive to other person and nature 2) Self acceptance and acceptance of others 3) Readiness to forgive and get reconciled 4) Being honest and just 5) Positive and creative thinking 6) Recognizing the uniqueness of others 7) Respecting pluralism 8) Willingness to take risk 9) Happy and contended 10) God centered.
Real source of impurity is within the heart: Jesus mentions six evil acts: practices of sexual immorality, thefts, murders, adultery, acts of coveting or lust, and wickedness in general. Then he adds a checklist of six vices or sins of the heart: deceit (lying), wantonness (shamelessness, immodesty), jealousy or envy, slander (imputing evil to others), pride (arrogance), and folly (the stupidity of one lacking moral judgment). Righteousness is not what we do on the outside, but who we are on the inside. Righteousness is not about the hand; it is about the heart. Acts of adultery, murder and unkindness come from within, from hearts that are adulterous, murderous and unkind. For Jesus, a community that is actively worshiping God is a community that does not base its behavior solely on precepts and doctrines, but is integrally connected to God through righteous, just and loving relationships. What make a person holy are the attitudes and actions that Paul in Gal 5:22-23 lists as “the fruit” of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Psalm 50: middle verse is a very powerful prayer:
A pure heart create for me, O God
Put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
Nor deprive me of your Holy Spirit.
We need to see how best we can love and serve God. It calls for a great deal of honesty, integrity and a high level of real freedom, the freedom to choose what is good, what is better, what is more loving. The Gospel is not a code of laws. It provides a vision of a truly human life lived for God among other people. It is focused on relationships rather than individual actions.