In this Gospel, Mark provides a significant amount of information about the Jewish observance of ritual-purity laws. Most Scripture scholars believe that Mark’s purpose was to educate the Gentile Christians in his audience since they would have had little or no experience of these laws.
Jesus first criticizes the Pharisees for putting human tradition above God’s Law – for making the tradition of ritual purity equal to and as binding as the Law of Moses.
Next, Jesus comments on the meaning behind the Pharisees’ language of holiness – clean and unclean. He teaches that a person is not defiled by the food that enters our bodies, but rather by the sin that emerges from our words or actions. In this teaching, Jesus unmasks a deeper question behind the one posed to him by the Pharisees. The real issue is holiness, which is not found in external acts alone. Holiness comes from within and is evidenced in the actions and attitudes that emerge from a person’s life.
If we read today’s Gospel carefully, we will see a pattern in Jesus’ teaching method that will be repeated in the liturgical weeks ahead. Jesus’ first teaching is directed to the Pharisees who questioned him. Then He directs his words to the whole crowd, teaching that a person is defiled by their own words and actions – remember it’s not the food we take in but the words we spout out. In the verses omitted in today’s reading, we learn that Jesus returned home with his disciples, who in turn quizzed him about what he had taught. The words at the conclusion of today’s Gospel are addressed specifically to His disciples and challenge us as well. In our desire to show that we are holy, we might also give too much credence to externals, following rules without thinking about the intention behind them.
Here’s where we need to really perk up and listen to the message in this Gospel: “Hear me, all of you, and understand. You disregard God’s commandments but cling to human tradition.” It seems to me Jesus’ underlying message to us, in this day and age and community, is that line about “teaching human precepts as divine doctrine.” It’s a great temptation for many of us to elevate our wishes to the “right way” of doing things. There is rarely only one RIGHT WAY in everyday matters. Even Emily Post changed her mind about the “right way” to eat fried chicken.
Jesus reminds us that we do not make ourselves holy by our actions. Rather, we become holy when we allow God’s Spirit to transform us. Our actions should be an expression of the conversion of our hearts.