Moses said to the people: "So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.
You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!" For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?"
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)
So these Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly 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 human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
"You have abandoned the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." Have you ever been sat in a church service and wondered that you might be out doing something more useful instead? It's not that you don't believe, not that you don't feel that God is present in your life, but that you wonder if the church has anything to do with your faith. There are occasions when such thoughts have crossed my mind, perhaps it was a failing on my part, but there have been moments at church services where I did not get a great sense that I was meeting with the living Jesus.
The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is always exciting; always relevant to the problems and needs of people; always challenging to those who need change; always open to those who seek help; always a friend to the stranger; always a support to the tired and depressed; always an inspiration to anyone who tried to follow him. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is the most amazing, most charismatic, most life-changing man. Shouldn't coming to church be about meeting with him?
I remember someone talking about growing up and having to endure what he called "the mind-numbing boredom of the Church of Ireland". There are moment when I wonder if that feeling is widely felt in the Catholic Church too. When we hear Jesus' scathing attack on the Pharisees, we think it's got nothing to do with us. The Pharisees were a religious group 2,000 years ago, but they had become stuck in their ways. Their beliefs were sincere and they were good people, but the life and the power had gone out of their religion. Jesus says to them, "You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."
The Pharisees would have been furious with Jesus, seeing him as a troublemaker and a rabble rouser. They would have been angry with him because he had hit a sore spot. Many devout Jews knew that their religion had become lifeless. The very reason why groups like the Pharisees had sprung up was to try to counteract what they saw as the rottenness and deadness at the heart of religion.
Jesus doesn't tell them that what they believe is wrong. He tells them that how they go about practising their beliefs is the problem They have forgotten the commands of God and they have become concerned only with their own traditions.
There are many people, particularly younger people, who have no problem with Christianity, their problem is with the way the church goes about things. They are happy with the commands of God, what they are not happy with are the traditions of the church.
Jesus' command to us is clear, to make disciples of all people, but we will not be able to do that if our traditions become an end in themselves. Traditions are only useful if they serve the original purpose, which is to tell people about Jesus. Jesus is not concerned with the outward rituals, he is concerned with what is in our hearts and the hearts of those we meet.
It is not what we do, it is the way that we do it. It's not the outward traditions that count, it's the faith we have in our hearts. There can be 16th Century liturgies that are full of warmth and life, and modern worship events that are cold and impersonal; what is important is that we meet with God and not just with tradition. What is important is our meeting with this amazing, charismatic, life-changing man, and our response to him.
Jesus criticized the worship of the Pharisees in words from Isaiah, 'These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me'. I'm sure that criticism applies to all of us at times, it certainly does to me, what matters is how we respond. What matters is us asking ourselves, 'how can I help make my church a place where anyone who walks in feel that they can meet with God?'
"You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men," Jesus accuses the Pharisees. Let's not be guilty of the same accusation.
In ancient times burial was rarely permitted within the walls of a city, while one of the commonest places for tombs was by the side of public roads. You can see a great number of these latter, still bearing their inscriptions, more than 2,000 years later, just outside Rome, along the Appian Way leading towards Naples. A particular variant on this was that, just before the Feast of Passover, in Palestine, the roads to Jerusalem were thronged with pilgrims coming to celebrate this great annual feast. But, according to the Mosaic Law, anyone who touched a dead body, or came into contact with a tomb, became automatically unclean, and was thereby debarred from attending the ceremonies of Passover in Jerusalem. To prevent such a disaster it became a Jewish custom to whitewash all wayside tombs in advance of the Feast, so that they became more conspicuous, thus easier to avoid. So in the Spring sunshine these tombs stood out, sparkling white, and almost lovely, alhough within they were full of decaying bodies or bones, whose touch would defile.
According to Jesus, that was precisely what the Pharisees were like, whited sepulchres, devout men who seemed intensely religious in every way, but looked down with contempt on those they regarded as sinners. The name Pharisees means "separated ones," a group who distanced themselves not just from gentile sinners, but also from lax Jews whom they deemed less observant of the Law. With haughty arrogance they dismissed such people as "a rabble that do not know the Law." In today's Gospel we see how the Scribes and Pharisees had come to hear Jesus, but instead of listening to what he had to say they just began to criticise the behaviour of his disciples. It was the age-old tactic of lowering a man's credibility by disparaging his friends.
The charge against the disciples was that they were eating without having first washed their hands, and so were breaking the ancient Jewish traditions. This typified the Pharisees' air of self-righteousness, and was based not on any interior, personal relationship with God, but from purely human customs. This is not to say that all Pharisees were bad or immoral. Some, like Nicodemus, were sincere searchers for the truth. But there is nothing harder for a good man than to avoid being proud of being good, and once pride intervenes, his goodness is tarnished, no matter how sincere he feels. There was always the possibility that in attempting to be perfect in every little detail of the Law the Pharisee could end up as a bigoted legalist, or indeed as a violent zealot. This is not simply a Christian verdict on the Pharisees, but rather that of the Jews themselves. For the Talmud cites seven different types of Pharisee, only one of them truly good. So when Jesus condemned the Pharisees as whited sepulchres, many of those listening would have agreed with him.
His warning holds a message also for each of us, to look inwards into the depths of our own souls. Deep within us God has written his Law, and it is our honour and duty to obey it, as we see it in our conscience. We will be judged according to the way we behave, based on what in our hearts we believe to be right and true and proper. "It is from within," Jesus tells us today, "that evil arises." He wants us to look beyond current opinion, the confrontations and problems of our own time, and strive for greater purity of heart. Steer clear of stupid conflicts and from slavery to convention and taboos, he says, and open up to the Holy Spirit's word of life.
To some extent, most of us are creatures of habit. We have traditionally done things in a certain way and it can be hard at times to start doing things differently. The personal habits, or traditions that we have developed can serve us well; yet, there can come a time when they begin to hold us back. As well as personal habits or traditions, we also have communal traditions, traditional ways in which we as a society or as a church have done things. Those communal traditions can serve us well, but there can come a time when they can restrict us.
In the gospel Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees who had a great regard for what is referred to in that gospel as 'the tradition of the elders.' These were traditions that had been passed down orally for hundreds of years and that applied the Jewish Law to all the details of daily living. These traditions were not written in the Scriptures but they had come to acquire an authority that was equal to that of the Scriptures. In the course of his ministry, Jesus challenged the prominence that the Pharisees and other religious leaders gave to these religious traditions. In the gospel Jesus contrasts these human traditions to the commandment of God and he declares that in their zeal to uphold these human traditions, the religious leaders have ended up undermining the commandment of God. Jesus is implying that what mattered so much to the Pharisees did not matter to God. God had other priorities. Long standing traditions about ritual washings of hands and of cups and pots do not matter to God; what does matter to God, according to Jesus, is what is in our heart and what comes from out of our heart.
Those of us who are into gardening know we have to prune our bushes and shrubs. Otherwise, they can get too big and the flower or fruit loses its quality. Jesus was in many ways a pruner. He pruned back the traditions that had come to acquire an importance they did not deserve. In his pruning he tried to highlight what was most important in God's eyes. Jesus did not jettison the Jewish tradition completely. In this morning's gospel he critiques the traditions of the Pharisees by drawing upon the tradition of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus was able to identify in the Jewish tradition what really mattered to God and what did not. Jesus did not dismantle the Jewish tradition in order to start completely afresh. Rather, he wanted what was best in that tradition to flourish. He highlighted those elements of the Jewish tradition that revealed God's desire for our lives, most fully. Jesus was very aware that religious tradition can hide God as well as reveal God. An important dimension of his work consisted in pruning back those elements of the tradition that were hiding God.
Our own religious traditions are always in need of pruning, be they our own personal traditions or the traditions of the church. What has become important to us over time may not be as important to God. That is why we need to keep going back to the New Testament and to the gospels in particular to learn over and over again what Jesus says is important to God. We have to keep going back to the source of our Christian tradition, which is the word of God, to allow that tradition to be purified and pruned. The Lord continues to speak to us through his word, reminding us of what is important to God and what, therefore, should be important to us. Today's reading from the letter of James calls on us to 'accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you.' The word of the Lord is not just outside of ourselves in a book; it has been planted in us, through baptism. In attending to the Lord's word we are attending to what is deepest within ourselves. James reminds us in that reading that accepting and submitting to the Lord's word means not just listening to it but doing it, doing what the word tells us. If we submit to the Lord's word in that full sense, then what is important to God will become important to us. The letter of James is very clear about what is important to God. In the words of our second reading, 'pure unspoilt religion in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.' I have no doubt that Jesus would have been very happy with that way, expressing what is important to God.
The first priority in God's eyes is how we relate to one another, in particular how we relate to the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Jesus did not hesitate to heal the sick on the Sabbath even though the tradition of the elders held that this constituted work and so was unlawful. The words and deeds of Jesus are always are best guide to what is of real value in our own religious tradition and what it is that may need to be put aside