The people in this week’s Gospel are quarreling about who has and who hasn’t washed his hands for dinner.
If you were a follower of the Jewish custom in that time, you would know that every person was required to wash up before eating. The rule was “a tradition of the elders,” to preserve physical health, of course. But Jesus is now telling people they have to live also from the inner meaning of traditions and laws.
So, let us talk about the interior of traditions, rules and laws. Children do not yet have a developed interior value system. As parents know.
“It is bedtime. Let’s brush our teeth and get our pajamas on.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I know, it is hard to stop playing and go to bed. I understand.
But bedtime is now so let's get started.”
“Because we have to get our rest so we can be bright
and cheerful tomorrow.”
“Because I said so, now get moving.”
Rules, the right ones, must be imposed upon a child.
Then why must we have rules and laws in the first place? I have heard the following said: rules describe the minimum that should be done in order to belong to a country or state or city or business or group or family. Not too many rules, not too few (which is difficult to achieve). Under the best circumstances, people follow the rules because their allegiance comes from within and they act from their own desire.
Apply this to a group. Take a faith-sharing group, for instance. It has an implicit expectation, even a requirement, that its members be present at each weekly meeting. What if a person shows up only once or twice a year, but when she does, she is the heart-and-soul of the discussion? And what if another person attends every single meeting but contributes nothing and in fact has no interest in the topics?
Neither person really fits well into the group, but which would you rather work with? The seldom-attending one nevertheless has real relevance to the organization and might not need much convincing to come more often (and therefore comply with the rule). But it would be much harder to kindle a fire in the second, wouldn’t it, the one who is following the external rule but not its insides.
The interior life of Jesus is the Holy Spirit.
Jesus knew that any law of the Kingdom of God must emerge from love or else be empty. He was upset that Pharisees and Scribes had manipulated exterior laws to feed their own egos. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
He is not telling them to ignore the laws and have just inner devotion. He is saying you must have both. Would it be worthwhile for you and me to look at the various obligations in our life and weigh how much correspondence they have to our inner values and convictions?
Maybe that would help us have the right heart both inside and outside!
You are invited to email a note to the
author of this reflection:
Fr. John Foley, SJ