22nd SUNDAY (B) AUGUST 29, 2021

Deut. 4: 1-2, 6-8; PS. 15; James 1: 17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk. 7: 1-8,14-15, 21-23

By: Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Real estate agents have a saying, "There are 3 things that count when considering a piece of property, Location, Location, Location." Or, to put it another way, "Location is everything." You could say the same thing about some very notable biblical stories: where they take place is very important to help us understand their meaning. For example, when Jesus instructs the crowd and his disciples in his famous Sermon, he goes up to a mountain to do it; a traditional place for the ancients to seek out and worship their gods. Besides having a sacred quality, mountains were also considered places of authority, where one could receive a teaching "from on high." The geographical context for the Sermon on the Mount helps our reading of Jesus’ words and helps us lend a special ear to what he has to say – from the mountain.

Notice Moses’ location in today’s first reading; he is speaking to the Israelites as they are about to enter the Promise Land. Moses addresses the people after their 40 years of wandering, a time when they were led by God and when their faith was tested and grew. Moses is speaking at a very important location. He calls the people together and tells them that they are at a crucial point in their history and they must pause to reflect on their past and future. Moses invites the people to consider, not only their physical location, but their spiritual location as well. He tells them to reflect on the God who has been with them and brought them to this point in their journey. Once again, as he did at Sinai, he is placing God’s law before them and is offering them another chance to choose God and God’s ways for their lives.

God’s law isn’t meant to be narrow and restrictive, Mosses suggests to the people. Rather, observing the "statutes and decrees" will make them a wise and intelligent people, admired by all the other nations. And more, their greatness will reflect the God they have; will announce to others that their God is close to and available to them in prayer. How different from the gods of the other nations, who were demanding and instilled fear in their devotees, even requiring human sacrifice. "For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is close to us whenever we call on God?" From their present location the Israelites have a chance to draw on their past experiences of God and choose to stay with the God who has given them life. If they do renew their commitment to God, they must live according to their God’s ways and so be a people admired by all; not because of their own gifts and prowess, but because of the great God who has chosen them and blessed them in wisdom’s path.

This law Moses was offering to the people would not only guide and teach them how to be faithful to God. It would also nourish and strengthen them through good times and bad. As their lives changed from being a nomadic people to being a settled and prosperous nation; as times and circumstances changed again and their fortunes declined and they found themselves in a harsh location once more, exiles in Babylon; as they returned from slavery back to a destroyed Israel – they would need to constantly reinterpret the "statutes and decrees" so that no matter in what physical, or spiritual location they found themselves, they could still live in a way that reflected the God who was "...so close."

To help them interpret and apply the Law in all their present and future locations, they would need guidance. The ones who fulfilled this role were the priests, Levites and scribes. A century or two before Christ the first Pharisees emerged and became famous for their faithful interpretation and observance of the Law. They did their best to adapt the law to new political, religious and cultural situations. They tried to build a hedge, consisting of observances and rituals, around the Law to protect it from creeping secularism and the diluting influence of the foreign dominant world in which the Jewish people found themselves. Their intentions were noble; but of course, some got carried away.

The Pharisees have been the "heavies" in the gospel. Almost every time they are around they are a lightening rod for conflict with Jesus. But let’s give them their due. They seem to be sincere in the questions they pose to Jesus today about ritual purity. The surrounding non-Jewish world was very alluring to even faithful Jews. It had its easier ways and the gods of other religions didn’t require the same daily allegiance and holy path the God of the Jews did. What helped the Jews’ keep faithful to God were deliberate and constant reminders in their daily lives, such as ritual washings. By observing them and other daily rituals, they could express and be reminded that they had a specific religious identity; they were members of the chosen people. So, concerning ritual washings, we are not talking about a person’s hygienic practices, but the expressions of their religious commitment.

The Pharisees wanted people to observe these practices for good reason, as demonstrations of fidelity to God and as a sign of membership in the Jewish community. They wanted to know why the followers of Jesus, a religious teacher, didn’t practice the observances that other teachers required? "The tradition of the elders" was an unwritten code of regulations, a way for devout Jews to observe and take seriously the Law of God. It was the "hedge" to protect the devout from even get close to breaking the Law. But Jesus notes that this group of Pharisees’ religious observance was mere lip service and their way of observing the "tradition of the elders" only kept them blind to the central matters of their faith. If you want to discuss true observance and holiness, Jesus says, then let’s talk about sincere religious observance that reflects the holiness of a heart turned to God and actions that show love of neighbor.

Jesus wasn’t critical of all the Pharisees, for like them, he too loved the Law and God’s covenant expressed in the Law. But Jesus wanted to lead people to the heart of the Law, the relationship it could foster with God. He wasn’t concerned with minutiae, the scrupulous observance of the externals that had no meaning for the ordinary Jew. Instead he wanted, as Moses did, to show how to follow God, not in superficial ways, but in the deepest parts of our hearts, where we love and make our commitments. True religion, not just rituals and external observance, is what Jesus, Moses and all the greatest religious leaders urge us to practice.

The location we find Jesus today is a place of conflict with some Pharisees and scribes. He is like Moses calling them to another location; to leave behind ways that are not of God and to choose the ways he points out to them. He wants a change of heart, a new and purified heart, for the people. He wants us to think and work out of a heart fully loyal to God, turned way from evil ways to a new place of love of God and service in God’s name. Location, location, location! Where is our heart? Where do we find it residing? Those who follow Jesus and accept his ways, go to the heart of the matter. Their hearts have had a change of location and because of Jesus, reside in the very heart of God.

Jesus isn’t cancelling out the importance of acts of piety and external religious behavior. But he does dismiss a holiness based on food laws and ritual cleansings. If a person’s heart is in God and with God, one’s acts will be pure, whether or not one attends to proper ritual washing. The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus. His teachings and manner of life showed that for him, holiness had nothing to do with superficial rituals. Jesus points out and criticizes a claim to holiness that is based on human achievement through human-determined acts of piety. Rather, he wants a heart turned towards God and, if that happens, a person will reflect holiness---that before God, they are clean.

Jesus quotes Isaiah and aligns himself with the ancient Hebrew prophets who, like Jesus in today’s gospel story, criticized people’s false pieties – outward observances that lacked hearts committed to God – as mere religious lip service. So how do Jesus’ words make us feel today sitting in our pews in worship? Just because our "location" is right, we are at church doing the proper thing, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get out hearts checked out. Are we sincerely trying to live during the week the faith we profess today in this assembly? Do our hearts reflect Jesus’ heart in his love of God and passion to do God’s will? Do we look out at the world with eyes influenced by our cleansed hearts and feel compassion for those ignored by the chilled hearts of our society? Are our hearts touched by the forgiveness Jesus offers us and then do we offer that forgiveness to those who have offended us? Or, are our hearts locked up, inaccessible to God, our neighbors and ourselves?

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: