Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem,  they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed.  (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders;  and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.)  And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?"  Mark 7: 1-5

Today’s Gospel records an incident in which Jesus clashes with the Pharisees over food purity. The Pharisees are concerned that Jesus’ disciples are not observing some of their ritual laws and are eating without washing their hands. Jesus answers them by saying that such acts are only concerned with outward appearances and do not affect one’s interior life.  He accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy and quotes Isaiah, ‘this people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’ He has no time for their laws which seek to exclude persons from the community. The laws of purity were not used to bring honour and glory to God but to exclude and oppress people.

When one reads the Gospels one finds that Jesus broke many of the laws and traditions of Jewish society not because he was anti-laws and regulations  but because they were not observed in the interest of mankind. The laws and traditions encouraged discrimination, oppression, injustice and exclusion. They denied people their human rights and relegated them to the status of second class citizens. Jesus could not identify with a system that treated people unkindly and was void of love and compassion. To show his disregard and disdain for the laws and traditions of the elders, he often broke them: he ate with sinners, he touched a leper, he handled a corpse, he ignored the Sabbath rules, he and his disciples did not fast, he mixed with women in public, he touched the woman with the issue of blood and he welcomed Gentiles.

Jesus recognised the importance of rules but he was against rules that were unjust. Rules are necessary for the good order of society, without them life will be a jungle experience. Laws can be legal but not morally right if they go against humanity. This was the point being made by Jesus as he rejected Jewish ritual and purity laws; he was not a lawless person. In the interest of justice he broke Jewish traditions and laws to give life to people.

Every society needs laws for its governance; without laws there will be chaos and disorder. But we must ensure that our laws do not discriminate against people and promote exclusive behaviour. Our laws must treat all people fairly and respect the rights and freedoms of people.  Following the example of Jesus there are times when in the name of justice and fair play we might have to disobey some laws in acts of civil disobedience. Everything that is legal is not necessarily right, and what might be accepted as right is not essentially moral. And so in the interest of the community and its members we have to apply the four way test to all laws that are made by government and civil institutions: Is it the TRUTH?,    Is it FAIR to all concerned?, will it Build GOODWILL and Better Friendships?, and  will it Be BENEFICIAL to All Concerned?

Laws can have good intentions but work to the detriment of people when they trample people’s human dignity. Laws must serve man and not man serve laws. When we serve laws we fail to love, forgive and act with compassion. This was the point Jesus was making when he disregarded many of the laws and traditions of the elders. This was clearly stated in one of his most famous statements: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”
From a religious perspective Jesus dismissed many of the laws and traditions as irrelevant and counterproductive. In today’s Gospel reading he teaches that the observance of purity laws does not make one right with God. There is still the mistaken belief that the observance of church laws and regulation makes one Christian.

Like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel many people continue to teach the performance of church rituals and rules as the test of one’s relationship with God. Very often we act like the Pharisees in the Gospel  and reduce Christianity to what we eat, what we drink, the way we dress, the day we worship, if we are baptised as infants or adults, what kind of wine we use at communion, if we perform certain rituals during worship and the like.

The church like any other institution must have rules for its good order and governance but it cannot make these rules into doctrine so as to exclude people from the body of Christ. In many instances church rules are manmade stipulations which have nothing whatsoever to do with one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Many people take these rules and give them divine status. Do these rules promote justice and peace, truth and honesty, peace and goodwill? They might make us good church members but not true Christians. Christianity and piety are not synonymous, we must not confuse them.

The observance of rules does not cure the disease of sin. Unless the heart is pure we will never be able to please God by the life we live. Jeremiah writes: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it" (Jeremiah 17:9)? This point is reinforced by Jesus: “out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man."  Our relationship with God must move beyond rituals to quality living. We must seek a renewed heart and cry with the Psalmist “Make me a clean heart, O God : and renew a right spirit within me.”

We might be good church members but at the same time be far from God. Church rules and rituals which do not bring about a change of heart are useless and empty. Rules devoid of the heart’s renewal promote double standards and do untold damage to Christianity. Do not let it be said of anyone of us “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” St. Augustine teaches: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in God. ...” A restless heart produces evil and cannot please God. A forgiven heart produces good and pleases God.

A lot of the externals we perform have nothing to do with our salvation. It is the heart that counts and the things we do that matter. In the long run rules and regulations have no bearing on our souls and our standing before God. At his appearing the only thing that will be asked of us is this: Did you love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “did you love your neighbour as yourself?”
O come to my heart Lord Jesus                                                                                                                 

There is room in my heart for Thee.

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