Image: Summer flowers on the tundra
“Wash your hands!” is a command that we hear all too frequently during these days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is has become a ritual to squeeze a little hand sanitizer from the bottle every time we enter a store, as if were blessing ourselves with holy water as we enter a church. We might be inclined, given our situation, to understand the concerns of the Pharisees and scribes as they raise the issue with Jesus and his disciples about not washing their hands.
Now, do not get me wrong, I think they have a valid point about washing your hands before you eat a meal, but not for the reason they are suggesting. The Rabbinic law of hand washing was a ritual to be performed before many different acts such as preparing for worship, after waking, and before breaking bread. It was considered to be so important that if no clean water was present for the ritual, a person was required to walk as far as four miles in order to acquire some.
For Jesus, this was not about proper hygiene but about understanding a proper relationship with God. He noticed that the Pharisees were very conscientious about these rituals but at the same time did not have compassion on the people they were meant to serve. If your life revolves around religion and you had access to all the things you needed to keep the multitude of laws you were fortunate, but the average working person did not have the luxury of time to adhere to all that was demanded of them and Jesus thought that was less than fair.
Jesus was clear in his teaching that he had not come to abolish the law, but in this instance the law had come from a tradition that had been handed down from the elders. The difference was between the law of man and the law of God. We cannot deny divine laws but when it comes to laws which are made by humans we have to decide whether they truly serve our good or if they are just adding unnecessary burdens to people’s lives.
Being flexible is an important attribute in those who lead others. One size does not fit all and we often have to discern individual circumstances. The Pharisees had a hard time with this so when Jesus offered his objection to the hands washing ritual they were offended and they failed to understand his motive.
Jesus was concerned with teaching the disciples that, as leaders, the example you set by your actions is important. But more important is that those actions are supported by an inward disposition that matches what we say and what we do. We can perform all the holy rituals we please but if we are not inwardly clean then our rituals lose their meaning and become empty actions. He also wanted them to learn not to be quick to judge. We do not know another person’s circumstances and just because they are not able to fulfill some social obligation does not mean that their heart is not in a good place with God.
Sometimes we might find ourselves going through the motions at Mass and looking at our watch to see how long until we can be free to get back to what we really want to be doing. The Gospel today invites us to stop and re-examine what brings us to Mass in the first place. Is it because of our Sunday obligation, perhaps it was because we always had to as kids and now we feel guilty if we do not go. Or is it because we love God and are so grateful for God’s love for us that we cannot wait to get back to the Eucharist to receive, break bread and share in this most wonderful ritual that we have been given.