Clean inside and out

Gospel Commentary Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

 

The response to Jesus’ impressive and compassionate miracle that fed 5,000 (and many more besides, without even considering where the leftovers went) took many forms. It was an important part of the way he set up his teaching about the way he would remain with his people and nourish them — nourish them in their souls. In recent Sundays, we have meditated on the great mystery of his real presence among us in the Eucharist. Of course, all of that came from the Gospel of John. This Sunday, we are back to the Gospel of Mark and yet we are still in the wake of the Eucharistic miracle of the loaves and fish. It happens, if we read back in Mark a little, that today’s back and forth between Jesus and the hypercritical scribes and Pharisees occurs after Mark’s account of the same miracle.

 

The scribes and Pharisees arrive on the scene with (what they consider to be) an important challenge for Jesus: “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” It is reasonable to think that they had heard about the great miraculous meal in which thousands of people, all fans of this Jesus, had disregarded the “tradition of the elders,” failing to wash properly before eating.

 

Of all the possible responses to the miracle, this one, by the just-arrived critics, is particularly sad. Even if they had not heard of that miracle, their question undermines something beautiful and new that Jesus brings. We can learn much from Jesus’ response. He says to them, “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.” Clearly, Jesus is serious, but he points out that their objection comes from a bad place.

 

Rather than try to teach directly the ones he has just called hypocrites, Jesus calls the crowd back and shares with the more docile learners a groundbreaking teaching: he declares that there are no foods that can make a person unclean. To all of them, the crowd and the scribes and Pharisees, this would have been a remarkable thing to hear. It was a teaching that reestablished the real and original intention of the ancient laws. The laws had been expanded to include all Jewish people and every meal rather than merely the priests in ritual contexts. “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.” In the verses that aren’t heard in this Sunday’s readings, we find these clarifying words, “Thus he declared all foods clean.”

 

The power of the miracle of the loaves and fish, coupled with Jesus’ insistent but mysterious teaching about how we must eat his body and drink his blood, offered his first hearers — and offer us — something very special. Rather than live in an uptight worried way, seeking always to avoid the many ways of becoming ritually unclean, Jesus brought and taught the truth that the important impurity to avoid was the real potential for sin and evil lurking within us. This teaching of Jesus helps us understand more clearly the reality of original sin, affecting us all deep down inside. As well, it helps us to recognize the importance of avoiding anything (in thought or deed) that might stir up “the tinder of sin” within us.

 

Knowing the whole story of how Jesus chooses to feed and strengthen us with his body and blood helps us to understand more thoroughly his anger with the scribes and Pharisees. How much they were missing. Their worries about food making them unclean were preventing them from understanding that the food that gives life and defeats our sinful inclinations is none other than Jesus himself.

 

Fr. Zuberbueler is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church. 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018