Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Pharisees Good and Bad  by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.

When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. - For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders.  And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves.  And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. - So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, "Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?"  He responded, "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."  He summoned the crowd again and said to then, "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.

"From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.  All these evils come from within and they defile."

It is probably not a sign of spiritual health when you agree with the Pharisees.  We know that the Pharisees opposed our Lord in His ministry and message.  Yet few of us would dispute their criticism that some of our Lord's disciples "ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands." (Mk 7:2)  we should always wash up before we eat, right?  Good manners, not to mention good hygiene, require as much.  So have we just sided with the Pharisees against our Lord?

For the record, we should wash up before eating.  But the Pharisees' criticism has nothing to do with manners or hygiene.  It concerns, rather, their punctilious view of ritual purification.  The Pharisees were obsessed with it: "(They do not eat without purifying themselves.  And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds." (Mk 7:3-4)

This emphasis on ritual purity began with the best of motives.  The Pharisees desired to incorporate personal holiness and awareness of God into every aspect of life - no matter how small or obscure.  They wanted to keep themselves pure from the sinful things of this world and remain devoted to God.  Unfortunately, by our Lord's time these good instincts had hardened into a fierce legalism.  The ritual requirements had multiplied beyond reason (248 prescriptions and 346 prohibitions, by one author's reckoning), and the underlying spiritual purpose (awareness of God in everyday things) had been forgotten.  Now since the Pharisees were the members of Israel who took religion most seriously, we who take our faith seriously should glean what lessons we can from from their goodness and likewise from their errors.

First, the practice of the presence of God.  The Pharisees' problem was not that they wanted to incorporate God into every aspect of life.  It was that they legislated it in such a way that a man's failure to do x, y or z would mean that he was displeasing to God.  We, however, should incorporate God into our lives a great deal more.  We tend to consign Him to one area of our lives (usually that hour on Sunday) and consider the rest as ours to do with as we please.  This produces that strange beast that claims to be Catholic in one area but not in another - as if devotion to God can be changed out like the shirt on one's back.

The Pharisees had it right: We should devote ourselves to God in all things, great and small.  They understood that devotion to God cannot be vague or purely spiritual - because we are not pure spirits.  For devotion to mean anything it must become concrete and specific - yes, even in the way we eat, cook, work, play, shop, etc.  It makes no sense to believe in the Word made flesh but not allow His words to take flesh in our lives.

Second, the interior investment.  Alas, despite their good motives, we will always know the Pharisees as legalists.  They reduced devotion to a matter of external observance.  One's goodness became mere adherence to a law.  There was no interior investment of oneself, no relationship with God, no spiritual growth.  The lesson here should be clear: Observance of Church discipline without the investment of ourselves interiorly does not benefit us.  The Church's rules (really a modest number, contrary to popular belief) seek to establish a bare minimum of observance and to hold us accountable.

Yes, we will have duties and obligations.  The Church, as any society, will have certain disciplines and requirements.  We should not trivialize them or set them aside.  At the same time, we should keep in mind that our Lord and His Church wants us to respond to the demands of the Faith not out of obligation but out of interior devotion.  Only when our interior devotion corresponds to our external observance will we slip the Pharisaical knot and find true holiness.

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