Mark 7:1-23, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Appearances can be deceiving. When it sets, the sun becomes a very big red balloon. So too when it rises rose-tinted on the horizon. Overhead, it is smaller and whiter. And yet it is the same sun.
In the Scripture readings today, we are warned about the appearances of religion. What matters is what’s inside one’s heart and what comes to the surface from deep within. And so we are told to be wary of the optical illusion of religious observances and be mindful of the more substantial truth about the state of our relationship with one another and with God.
This is not to say that externals are not important. After all, we are not pure spirit. We have bodies through which we relate to one another and to the world. We cannot but be “incarnated” in the way we express who we are, what we value, and how we live.
Moreover, we need rules. Think traffic lights. Or even hygienic practices like handwashing before eating. Social norms tell us how to behave in community, how to work for the common good and avoid hurting one another. In Deuteronomy today, Moses enjoins us, “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”
Externals are important insofar as they reflect what is inside, insofar as the surface manifests the subterranean. The direction is important: from the inside out; not what comes in from the outside, but what goes out from the inside. Think language. Think of the desperate words of trolls, and the obscenities and lies hurled in the public squares of today. And so the summons from Jesus himself: “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 are what defile.”
Externals do matter but these become dangerous and deceitful once disconnected from the internals. On the one hand, we can be wracked with needless guilt and despair if the body is not able to keep up with the willing spirit, if our actions are no perfect match to our holy desires. Think St Paul and his temptations and his lifelong struggle with his own demons. On the other hand, we can become complacent and proud in the illusion that we are good because we are compliant with external rules, never mind the true interior state of our soul before God and humanity. Think Pharisees and their piteous delusions about their righteousness and outward piety.
To the Pharisees of our time, the words of the Lord are scathing: “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors 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.”
We begin to heed God’s commandment when we try to look beneath the veneer, and behold our lives with God’s eyes. And looking under, we come to realize thankfully that God looks to the heart. Think of how our Lord saw that widow and her mite, the publican, and the rich young man. Think Jesus and the way he reached out to the outcasts and those outed by the norms and traditions of his time.
True religion, in the letter of James today, is “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” These days, our land is stained by needless blood and tears. And this is just the surface. The stain from orphans and widows is not an optical illusion. Look under, may God have mercy on us, and we just might unearth fear and apathy, not to mention self-righteous hatred and delusional treachery.
*from God’s Word Today, Philippine Star