Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
'It Doesn't Really Matter What You Believe'
by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
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."

People often say, “It really doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re a good person.”  The sentiment is usually founded on true affection for those of different faiths or points of view.  Americans, living alongside people of other faiths, usually delight in the goodness of their neighbors.  Ordinarily the toleration of other faiths is a distinctive American trait.  Provided, of course, we and our neighbors are genuinely “good.”

In bygone days there was a prevailing agreement on the definition of good morality and the need to practice one’s faith.  Worshipping and reverencing God was less of a “right” and more of a cultural expectation. (Atheism was accepted but generally the denial of God’s existence was considered odd.)  Paradoxically wartime can bring to the surface the best in a culture.  In World War II the great American artist Norman Rockwell sketched a propaganda poster for the war effort depicting people of many faiths in prayer.  One of the images was prominent: among those praying, a woman with a rosary draped in her hands.  The slogan was simple: “Save Freedom of Worship.  Buy U.S. War Bonds.”  It remains a delightful artifact of common attitudes in the last century, the “Golden Age” of “It really doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re a good person.”

The truth is, however, the bygone moral consensus was indeed rooted in religious belief.  There was at least an implicit widespread acceptance of the Ten Commandments as the guiding moral light for Catholics, Protestants and Jews.  Failures in morality could be expected.  But few would object to the divine precepts themselves.  Except for Hollywood celebrities, divorce was relatively rare and considered scandalous.  Even contraception was considered ugly and degrading and prohibited by law (mostly by laws enacted by Protestant legislators).  Implicit cultural acceptance of the Ten Commandments, it seems obvious, laid the groundwork for the “It really doesn’t matter what you believe” maxim.  The Ten Commandments formed ancient Israel, and over centuries became the bedrock of the Judeo-Christian Western Civilization.

Christ Himself ratifies the Ten Commandments and establishes the foundation for the future Judeo-Christian alliance when He insists, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17).  In addition, in the Gospel when a young man asks Christ how to be good, Christ responds, “Why do you ask me about the good?  There is only One who is good.  If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”  Christ not only invokes the Ten Commandments as normative, He fine-tunes them.  In Sunday’s Gospel, Christ reveals the depth of sin in the face of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees: “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.”  Obeying the Ten Commandments goes beyond Pharisaic externalism.

As with many sentimental dogmatic statements, however, we ought to be careful not to take the cliché too literally.  “It really doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re a good person” breaks down under scrutiny.  Mary and Joseph, Joachim and Ann, and every pious Jew before the coming of Christ strove to live the commandments and were “good people.”  If being a “good person” is all that is necessary, why do we need a messiah?  Do we really need Jesus in order to be a good person?  In short, the answer is straightforward: We sin and only Christ can save us from our sins.

There is a series of poignant if terrible scenes in the movie “Schindler’s List.”  The Nazi commandant in a concentration camp delights in shooting the Jewish inmates from his prison camp perch.  The industrialist Oskar Schindler who uses the Jews as slave laborers for the industrial war effort gradually comes to realize the horror of the Nazi pogrom.  In his attempt to save the Jews from the commandant’s murderous sport, Schindler convinces him that acts of forgiveness give a man a greater sense of power and domination than random acts of cruelty.  The commandant proceeds to extend acts of forgiveness to the prisoners who accidentally jostle him in the prison yard.  On his authority alone, he forgives and forgives again.  In the next to the final scene of the segment, in the privacy of his quarters he gazes into a bathroom mirror, touches his image and says, “I forgive you.”  The segment ends with the Nazi back in his perch overlooking the prison camp grounds, once again assassinating inmates with his high-powered rifle.

The message is clear and fully compatible with Catholic teaching.  Forgiveness is not an act of domination and it is impossible to “forgive ourselves” on our own authority.  But Catholic teaching does not abandon us in despair.  The church reveals Christ and His mercy as our divine remedy.  Christ forgives and saves if we turn to Him in trust.

Yes, the content of our belief truly does matter.  If we really believe that Jesus is the “way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:16), our lives will be changed for good and for the good.  Keeping His Ten Commandments makes us good people, and receiving His forgiveness in the sacraments when we fall restores us to grace – and prepares us for everlasting life.

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