Fr Lar O'Connor
Often in the Gospels Jesus has to contend with traditionalists. The Pharisees and Scribes fit that category. Their main focus was on law. They appreciated the value of the Ten Commandments but in order to ensure that people would not violate the basic commands they created a mesh of mini regulations to prevent people from violating the Ten Commandments. These came to be known as the Tradition of the Elders. Among these regulations there were a number dealing with purity and impurity. There was a big emphasis on being pure and clean. People became impure, for instance, when they went into the house of a Gentile or foreigner. Touching a corpse also made a person impure. A woman after childbirth was considered impure. To eat the meat of certain animals, like pigs, made one impure. In the Acts of the Apostles St. Peter had an extraordinary vision of a large sheet laid out before him with various animals, reptiles and birds on display. A voice said to him, “Now, Peter, kill and eat. “But Peter answered, ‘certainly not, Lord; I have never eaten anything profane or unclean.’” The voice responded, “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane.” (Acts 10:11-16) This vision freed Peter from a whole body of Jewish regulation and permitted him to welcome non-Jews into the church.
From Peter we get some idea of the pressure of Jewish culture on him in his early ministry. But in our Gospel Jesus challenges the thinking of the time. The whole approach was superficial, concerned only with external actions and not really genuine. Following Isaiah Jesus makes his position very clear. “This people honours me with lip-service while their hearts are far from me.”
Jesus emphasizes the importance of the heart. For him it was very different from our idea of heart. The heart was the seat of intelligence and emotions. The heart enables us to think, reflect, will and decide. All action, good and bad springs from the heart. It is not what goes into a person from outside that makes him impure. It is what comes from the heart that makes a person unclean. He mentions a number of actions and attitudes that make us impure. “For it is from within, from men’s (people’s) hearts that evil intentions emerge, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander pride and folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man (person) unclean.” At the top of the list is fornication, a self -indulgent practice that displaces the life-giving purpose of sexuality intended for the stable and responsible context of marriage. There is also mention of adultery which shows lack of faithfulness and love to a married partner. Most of the other vices display a lack of respect for other people and the intent to damage and cause them injury. The main message for us is to get the heart and conscience right so that, like St. Paul, we will always seek the advantage of our brothers and sisters. “Never do anything offensive to anyone ….just as I try to be helpful to everyone at all times, not anxious for my own advantage but for the advantage of everybody else, so that they may be saved.” (I Cor. 10:31)