(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
Jesus draws people to him. He makes people curious. Some people's hearts are free to fall in love. They know deep inside themselves that he is the One who answers all their desires. Other people, although they find themselves drawn to Jesus, look only to criticize him, to find fault with him. Their hearts are not free. They do not know what they truly desire. In the Gospel for this Sunday, these people who criticize find fault with some of Jesus' disciples.
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 the Pharisees and the scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
We know that thoroughly washing ourselves and anything that might have come in contact with the coronavirus is extremely important. For us, this kind of washing is not only understandable, it is vital--necessary for life. These people who have come to criticize, however, are not concerned about ordinary washing, but ritual washing. We know this because they speak not of dirty hands, but of defiled hands. "Defiled" means unclean in the sense of being no longer holy. Ritual washing is a way of preparing for something holy.
There is a moment in our Mass when the priest ritually washes his hands. Does he come to Mass with dirty hands? Of course not. But before he takes the bread and wine brought to the altar and asks for the Holy Spirit to come and make them Christ for us, the priest washes his hands with water. While washing, the priest prays Psalm 51 verse 2:
"Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin."
In this prayer it is clear that it is not the water that is washing, is it? What does the priest want God to do? It is clear that the priest knows that the only way to wash away sinfulness is if God does the cleansing. In this way, the priest prepares his heart for something holy.
What are these particular Pharisees and scribes truly concerned about? Why do the disciples need to wash their hands ritually before they eat? Do they need to prepare their hearts for something holy? Are they not following the One who is holy? If they have sinfulness that needs to be washed away, are they not following the One who cleanses?
Jesus said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honours 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.”
What would happen if the priest does not wash his hands ritually before asking for the Holy Spirit to come to transform the bread and the wine? Would his sinfulness cause the Holy Spirit to stay away from all the people who desire to receive Christ? Can the priest's sinfulness defile the Holy Spirit of God? Can we, in our sinfulness, make the One who is Holy, less holy?
Similarly, what would happen if the priest washes his hands ritually, but says the words without thinking? What if he does not truly desire God to cleanse him from his sinfulness? What if he does not think he has any sins to be removed?! Would the ritual washing do anything? The water does not cleanse. If the priest does not truly desire God to cleanse him, are his sins removed by the water?
Who is the ritual washing for? For God or for us? Rituals are only useful if they prepare our hearts for God. Our hearts must desire God. Can we tell the difference, though? Sitting in our pews, watching the priest wash his hands, can we judge whether he desires God to cleanse him of his sins? Can we see what is in his heart? Who is the only One who knows what is in someone's heart?
Jesus calls these particular Pharisees "hypocrites." A hypocrite is someone whose lips say one thing, but their heart is in a totally different place. Jesus knows what is in their hearts. They have forgotten who the ritual washing is for. They have decided that the ritual is more important than what is in someone's heart. They they are also judging someone else's heart rather than looking into their own.
Then Jesus 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
Someone else's sinfulness--that which is outside of us--does not make us sinful. Sin is decided within our own hearts. Sin is a choice that we make. It is a choice that harms our relationship with God. Like Jesus says, it makes our hearts far from God. And washing with water is not going to help.
But does God abandon us in our sinfulness? Does God abandon these Pharisees and scribes whose hearts are in the wrong place? What happens then?
Then Jesus called the crowd again and said to them,
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand!
Then Jesus called again and said,
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand!
Then Jesus calls again and says,
“Listen to me--you--and understand!
And we listen.
Our hearts, heavy as they might be with sin, desire God.
We listen and we turn.
We head back to the One who calls and calls and calls until we listen.
We return to the One who looks into our heart and sees the desire there--the desire that is only a mere shadow of God's desire for us.
And we are cleansed.