Gospel Reflection for August 30th, 2015: The Tradition of the Elders
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 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 the 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.”
I get a kick out of those Capitol One credit card commercials with Samuel L. Jackson. When he looks into the camera and delivers the question with an edge of cockiness and disdain, “What’s in your wallet?” it’s like he sees right through me. I think,’ You’re right, Mr. Jackson. I don’t have that credit card, and I am such a fool.’ When I read the Tradition of the Elders gospel, I imagine a similar scene. Jesus, minus the hip outfit and any trace of arrogance, looks right through the Pharisees and scribes and says, “What’s in your heart?”
It must have been quite a shock to these learned Jewish leaders. Possibly no one had ever questioned their motives in the teaching and following of the tradition of the elders developed to show humble submission and gratitude toward God. And if we assume their intentions in asking why Jesus and His followers did not wash hands before eating was only to address a failure to give God His due reverence, Jesus’s response would have been harsh and unfair. However, Jesus, in His omniscience, knew what was in their hearts. It was not love of God and neighbor; instead, it was probably pride in their elevated social status and, at that moment, jealousy of this charismatic rabbi and healer, named Jesus. If, as Mark’s gospel suggests, they were silent in response, it is probably because they were painfully aware of the truth of His words. He saw the hypocrisy and selfishness in their motives and leadership.
Jesus makes it clear in this gospel: motive matters. When we attend mass or engage in other forms of worship, when we help others in need, when we pray or read the Bible, when we do anything that on the outside appears to be the act of a faithful Christian, but on the inside do so for ulterior motives that glorify ourselves instead of God; we are in sin and need to repent. Jesus wants our hearts, not just our actions.
I think it is a fair question to ask, what’s the harm? If a good deed is done well to help someone, isn’t it valuable in spite of the motive behind it? I would argue to the beneficiary, it may not matter. Indeed, he or she should be grateful because the good deed comes from God regardless of the deliverer or his reasons. For the benefactor, I would also admit the possibility that his or her heart maybe warmed from doing something for others as an act of God’s grace, even though the original intent was selfish. However, if our hearts are closed to God and His will for us, we cannot know and love Him. He cannot work His will through us to do further good among His people. In spite of any good done in the short term, those with a heart cold to Jesus are blocking God’s will in the world and failing to love God above everything else. We are not growing in our relationship with Jesus. The consequences of failing to deepen that relationship are dreadful. We risk our own happiness in this life; and more importantly, we risk on the last day Him saying to us, “I never knew you. Depart from me…” (Matthew 7:23). This is why an acceptance of secular humanism, the belief humans can be good and moral without God, is so dangerous to our salvation.
So I pray that we not fall into the trap of hypocrisy demonstrated by the Pharisees. Instead, may we use all the opportunities gifted to us (prayer, sacraments, service, scripture, devotion, etc.) to keep our hearts open to God’s will in our lives to strengthen our relationship with Jesus.