With access to clean running water, hot and cold, in our homes, most of us are able to wash as often as we wish and whether we need to or not. Today’s Gospel features a clash between Jesus and an elite group of fellow Jews over the ritual washing hands before a meal.  The Pharisees insisted on this not so much as a matter of hygiene but as a necessary form of religious purification and separation. This was one of their ways of distinguishing themselves from others and which they also made into a way of worshipping God.

They claimed this ritual of purification was a ‘tradition of the elders’. This ‘tradition’ consisted of a set of practices invented by elites who lived in the cities. The Pharisees, an elite group in Judaism, insisted that every Jew should observe these urban practices. To their anger, some of Jesus’ followers did not.

Peasants in the countryside, as well as itinerant preachers like Jesus and his followers, would have had difficulty observing this ritual. Water was scarce and not readily available for such ablutions. Fishermen – like Peter, James and John, Our Lord’s closest companions – routinely came into contact with dead fish, dead animals, and other pollutants. Given their way of life, peasants adapted the ‘tradition of the elders’ to the realities and limitations of their way of life and, as we heard, to the anger of the Pharisees. (source: John J Pilch)

In response to this criticism, Jesus sided with the peasants. He said that this ‘tradition’ was a human invention and not part of the original Law of Moses. This washing ritual, he said, was not a religious necessity, and nor were the other petty regulations that formed part of their ‘tradition’. They were doing the very thing Moses had forbidden in the First Reading – adding their customs to the divine Law.

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

To be accused of hypocrisy hurts. No one likes to be on the receiving end of that accusation. But is it one Jesus would throw at some of us too?  As we know only too well, when our private lives do not measure up to our public actions, we too are in the same boat as the Pharisees. Thus our worship of God, to quote Jesus, can be mere ‘lip-service’. 

So what in this Gospel is Jesus asking of us today? Where in my life do I say one thing and live by another? How much is my public face at odds with my private life? Is my worship of God a true expression of my inner self? If not, what adjustment does the Lord want me to make? Can I make a greater effort, as Jesus asks, to be a more forgiving and merciful person, not least with immediate members of my family? Is it time, perhaps, I appreciated some people for what they are rather than criticize them for what they are not? In our Church, who are the elites today, who, possibly, have made petty ‘human’ traditions, or add-ons to Church life that Jesus would find fault with today?

The word ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated one’. The Pharisees were elitists and thought they were better than others who did not keep to their man-made rules. But Jesus accused them of the greater fault of being hardhearted and lacking mercy, the one thing God wanted of them more than any other. Could Jesus say the same of any of us?

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
29 August 2021

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