This morning our attention shifts back to Mark’s Gospel and its push to get into Jesus’ actions and conversations that set him apart from the various Jewish establishments of his day.
Author and Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello tells a story about an ashram cat. An ashram is a spiritual retreat center or monastery in the Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) religious traditions. He writes,
When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So, he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship. After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship. Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.Anthony DeMello, S.J., Song of the Bird (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1984) P. 63
Most Christians, and certainly we Episcopalians, have our own ashram cats. These cats are not only distracting, but they can keep us from our deeper purpose – not only in worship but also in life.
This is what was at the heart between conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders that came to hear him. They noticed that Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands in the prescribed ritual manner before sitting down to eat. By “eating with defiled hands” (Mk. 7:2), they were ignoring the oral “tradition of the elders” — not in the Torah but handed down from various teachers (vv. 3-4). Over time these rituals had largely become rigid and devoid of spiritual meaning.
Jesus was known as a religious teacher who was skilled in the use of rabbinic arguments. He was well aware of the faults in the religious system and called into question those rituals that interfered with carrying out God’s will. Thus, in response to the Pharisees’ question about why his disciples ate with defiled hands (v. 5), Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 to support his position: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me …” (v. 6b). They have abandoned God’s commandments in order to observe human tradition.
Jesus did not come to abolish the law, or the way of life defined in the teaching of Moses. Ritual purity was important in the Pharisaic tradition as a way to claim and preserve Jewish identity in the wider culture; but for many the practices had become an end in themselves. Thus, Jesus was not encouraging his followers to disregard food regulations. Instead, he was calling attention to the fact that it is the attitude of our hearts that is truly important.
Jesus then directs his attention from the Pharisees to the crowd and moves from a discussion of the observance of ritual to the issue of what constitutes defilement (vv. 14-15). He declares that it is not what enters a person from the outside, such as food, that has the power to defile; rather it is that which comes from within.
Next, Jesus leaves the crowd to talk privately with his disciples, who do not understand his words. In his frustration, Jesus exclaims, “Then do you also fail to understand?” (v. 18). In verses 18-20, not included for today, Jesus explains that whatever enters a person from the outside has no power to make that person unclean, because it is received through the stomach, not the heart, and goes out again. In the biblical tradition, the heart was the center of a person’s life and emotions — where the struggle between good and evil took place.
Jesus emphasizes that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come …” (v. 21) and goes on to list the vices that defile. Such lists were common in Hellenistic moral literature and are found in Paul’s letters as well (Rom. 1:29-31; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21). Mark’s twelve vices here serve as examples of forces within the human heart that separate us from God and others.
Thus, Jesus calls his followers, and us, not to be so concerned with external practices that justice and righteousness are ignored. True conversion means internalization of the Gospel message so that one’s external actions are changed in response. In other words, Jesus is telling us that our words and actions must match – not only each other, but the truth of the Gospel, as well.
This is at the heart of our Epistle reading for today and for the next several weeks as we hear, once again, are from the letter of James. The letter of James is addressed to a general audience rather than a particular community, the letter has much in common with traditional Jewish Wisdom literature, with its emphasis on right behavior and teachings on morality. The author’s focus is not so much on bringing readers, and us, to faith, but rather providing instructions on how we are to live out our faith.
Today’s reading begins with a reminder that every gift comes from God. We have been given a new birth by the word of truth, and thus are connected to Christ as “first fruits” of God’s creation (1:18). This is the basis for all behavior toward others. Thus, we are to be slow to anger, for “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (v. 20), and to resist wicked and sordid behavior.
Blessings come from being “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v. 22). James goes on to remind his readers that pure and undefiled religion calls us to care for those in need, such as widows and orphans and to “keep oneself unstained by the world” (v. 27). It is of no value to claim that we have heard God’s Word unless we follow through and act on it in our lives.
Are traditions important? Yes, they are. However, we must not allow a rigid practice of our traditions get in the way of the weightier matters of the Gospel – compassion, mercy, love, and forgiveness. So, on this fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, let us take a look at the various cats running around our ashram and decide if we should let them go.