With access to clean running water, hot and cold, in our homes, most of us are able to wash as often as we wish. Today’s Gospel features a clash between Jesus and an elite group of fellow Jews over washing before every meal.  The Pharisees observed this practice not so much as a matter of hygiene but as a necessary religious ritual of purification. This was one of their ways of worshipping God and was, they said, part of the ‘tradition of the elders’.

This ‘tradition of the elders’ was a set of practices invented and practised by elites who lived in the cities and the Pharisees insisted that every Jew should observe them. To their anger, some of Jesus’ followers did not.

Peasants in the countryside, as well as itinerants like Jesus and his followers, would have had difficulty observing this practice. Water was scarce and not readily available for such ablutions. Furthermore, fishermen – like Peter, James and John, Our Lord’s closest companions – routinely came into contact with dead fish, dead animals, and other pollutants. (source: John J Pilch)

In response, Jesus said that this ‘tradition’ was a human invention and not part of the original Law of Moses handed down to them by God. So the washing of hands, he said, was not a religious necessity, and nor were the other petty regulations that formed part of their ‘tradition’.

Jesus then insulted the Pharisees by calling them hypocrites. The Greek word ‘hypokrites’ means an ‘actor’. He said his opponents were behaving like actors, obsessed with presentation and outward appearances.  Quoting the Prophet Isaiah on true worship of God versus lip service, they were neglecting the real spirit of the Mosaic Law and what God required – i.e. being merciful people and practising justice (what St James, in the Second Reading, calls ‘pure, unspoilt religion’). God, he said, wanted their hearts and minds, not their hands.

That accusation of hypocrisy, and being obsessed with outward appearances, is one that can be levelled against us too. As we know only too well, when our private lives do not match our public actions, we too are like those Pharisees.  Then our worship of God here in Church is, to quote Jesus, mere ‘lip-service’.

So in response to this Gospel we might ask ourselves: where in my life do I say one thing and live by another? Is my worship of God just ‘lip service’, confined to taking part in Sunday Mass? Am I striving to be a more merciful person in my dealings with others? Where in my life do I work for justice and support people in need?

On a much wider scale, Our Lord’s accusation of hypocrisy is now being levelled, rightly, against the leadership in our Church. The word ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated one’. The ‘separated ones’ or ‘elites’ in our Church – priests, religious, bishops and cardinals – are being held to account for historically putting the reputation of the Church before justice and mercy for the victims of abuse.

While such abusive behaviour in the Church is distressing, the good news is that it is, finally, emerging from the dark and being dragged into the light. Finally, the cries of the wounded are being heard and believed, even if it is far too late in many cases. We remember and pray in Mass today for all such victims of abuse.

The leadership of our Church is finally waking up to the full scale and horror of what has been covered up. It’s leading, I think, to a ‘Reformation’ or purification of the Church. And the biggest – and most fortunate – ‘casualty’ of this will be the ending of the clericalism that perpetuated and covered up these criminal actions.

As a priest of 43 years, with six years training in a seminary beforehand, I find the incompetence of Church leadership in dealing with this problem deeply frustrating and downright disheartening. I trust many of you will feel likewise.

I came across the following last week and, in conclusion, I share it in the hope it will offer you some encouragement if, like me, you are hanging on with the Church by your fingernails:

I’ve been asked by friends who aren’t Catholic, and some former Catholics over the years, how a progressive could stay in a church that doesn’t allow gay people to marry or how I could be part of a patriarchal institution that refuses to ordain women.

I sputtered out answers that were likely insufficient, not logically airtight, and probably unacceptable for some. For me, and I would guess for many Catholics, the church is not like a political party’s platform that you parse for complete alignment with your preferred ideology or policy goals. My faith is more naturally compared to the complicated bonds of family and tribe, a place where you feel most at home even when the people in your own living room sometimes drive you mad. (by John Gehring, National Catholic Reporter website, 24 August 2018)

What a family!

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
2 September 2018