From the Gospel of Mark:
When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
It’s never a good idea to test Jesus. His response to them was one we need to hear too. Jesus’ message this morning is that it’s unhealthy to fixate on some minor issue and miss the more important one. The Pharisees were focusing on the wrong thing. And Jesus got upset:
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
Jesus was not criticizing or rejecting the Jewish law or even Jewish tradition. Jesus was a good Jew. He followed the law and loved it. He probably washed his hands before he ate. His point here is not to criticize the law but to remind his hearers that there are more important issues.
Many people in Jesus' time thought that religion was all about observing rituals, which they thought were pleasing to God. Not to observe them was to sin. In short, observing rituals became identified with being religious.
Jesus made it clear that religion isn't something you do at certain times on certain days. It's not saying specific prayers or performing certain rituals. It’s a thing of the heart. It’s a thing of the heart called love — love of God and love of neighbor. Today’s Scripture readings invite us to look into our hearts and to ask ourselves to what extent the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading apply to us:
“These people honor me with their words, but their heart is far away from me."
They invite us to look into our own heart and ask ourselves to what extent the words of James in today’s second reading apply to us:
“Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to his word; instead, put it into practice. Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”
We must never forget that Jesus uses our hands, feet, voice, and heart to touch people in our day. That’s what matters - what is in our hearts - and what we do about it.
We are being asked today:
- Do we focus on the things that are not that important and ignore what is essential?
- Do we judge people on how they look instead of who they are?
Here is a question he put on my heart today for me:
- Do we get upset about trivial things - like someone taking a knee at a sporting event during the National Anthem but ignore the significant issue of racial justice in our country?
- Are we attentive to the words we say in church but are deaf to the cry of the poor?
Jesus is telling us today; it's unhealthy when we fixate on – some minor issue – and miss the more important one. This is what has Jesus upset in today's gospel. We are all in need of some “open-heart” surgery. Let us learn not to give our energy and attention to minor things but rather focus on the heart of the matter. Let us promise God not to criticize someone like the Pharisees did that day, before we explore what is on their heart.
My grandmother always had a saying that seems to fit every situation today she might have said to us:
"Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes."