When I visit someone in the hospital, there are usually stations all over at which I can sterilize my hands with some anti-bacterial soap. Usually there is a sign over the station that says something like “Don’t pass this up!” I would think that for the workers in the hospital that it has become second nature to wash their hands with this stuff. It’s become a ritual for them many times a day.
In our Gospel reading, the Pharisees followed the ritual of washing their hands before eating. I don’t think it was a matter of hygiene so much as a matter of practicing religion. So when they notice that the Twelve didn’t observe this ritual, they ask Jesus, perhaps in an accusatory tone, why His disciples did not follow the practice.
Jesus takes the opportunity to remind them that what’s more important than the cleanliness outside is the striving for cleanliness inside, and that they needed to focus on that. Then Jesus turns to the crowd and says: “Hear me all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within can defile.” For me, this is a reminder that no matter how I may be mistreated, or ridiculed; no matter how much people may want to demean me or dehumanize me, they cannot defile me. Oh, I can be hurt badly, and we know people in our world who have been tortured, and greatly wounded physically, emotionally, and spiritually, but that does not denigrate their worth. The people who are defiled are the perpetrators, not the victims and survivors.
The rituals we do in the practice of our religion are meant to help us internally move closer to God and open ourselves more and more to God’s will for us. They are not meant to be opportunities to condemn others. At the same time, we should be careful not to isolate ourselves from the world as we work on our relationship with God. I think our second reading from the letter of St. James gives us a proper perspective: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” To practice authentic religion we must work on the internal (“keep oneself unstained by the world”), but also be aware of what is going on in the world and in the lives of others, mindful of the most vulnerable among us (“care for widows and orphans’).
Being open to internal conversion and working to build up the kingdom may be two distinct things in our minds, but they cannot be differentiated in our hearts and souls. Getting outside of ourselves actually helps our inner conversion. The things associated with inner conversion, such as prayer and liturgy, lead us to be ever more open to reaching out to others. In the end, we’re not going to be judged, I think, on how perfectly we celebrated Mass, for example, but on whether our celebration of the Mass opened us up to God’s love in Jesus Christ, and impelled us to share that love with the rest of the world.
As we practice the rituals of our faith, may we be open to conversion, and work for a world where there is no attempt to demean, denigrate or exploit another human being or any other part of creation.
Fr. Phil, CP