Jesus' Prescription for Holiness and Purity

Homily for Twenty-Second Sunday of Year B

by Fr. Tommy Lane

How do you become holy? In the time of the Old Testament the way to become holy was to be pure by following all the laws of Moses in the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah. The commands in those books were counted and they found there were 613 laws altogether in those first five books. The Babylonians had some laws similar to Israel (Law Code of Hammurapi) but their laws did not place the same value on life and did not have the same understanding of ethics and spirituality as Israel. No wonder that we heard Moses in the first reading today saying these laws would show other nations their wisdom and prudence and how close God was to them (Deut 4:6-8). The most important of those laws are the Ten Commandments. Moses also said they were to take nothing from those laws and add nothing to them (Deut 4:2). But as time went by to help ensure that people would obey those laws not only did they have what was written in the books but they also added many commands not written in those books. They were passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. They believed those commands passed down by word of mouth were originally given to Moses on Mount Sinai also. However the result was that with such a complicated system it was impossible to ever become holy. No matter how hard you tried you could be sure that you would break some of those laws. For that reason Jesus said once in the temple that none of the Jews keeps the law (John 7:19) and Peter also said the same later (Acts 15:10).

An example of laws not written in the books of the Old Testament but passed down by word of mouth is the one in the Gospel today about purifying oneself, i.e. washing oneself carefully as far as the elbows before eating (Mark 7:1-4). Jesus and his disciples did not follow this law. Yet Jesus also made it clear on other occasions that he was not against Jewish Law (Matt 5:17-19). Some of the scribes and Pharisees, who apparently had nothing better to do in Jerusalem, decided they would have to go north to Galilee to check on Jesus and his disciples. They asked Jesus why he and his disciples did not obey the law about purifying, washing to the elbows before eating. At first Jesus doesn’t answer them but gets their attention by quoting Scripture to them, a passage from Isaiah complaining that people’s worship was only lip-service while their hearts were far from God (Mark 7:9-13). Jesus explains what their problem is; they are forgetting about God’s commandments and instead only paying attention to human traditions like the one about purifying before eating. Finally, when talking to the people, Jesus gives the answer to why he and his disciples don’t purify before eating; nothing that goes into you makes you unclean, it is what goes out of you that makes you unclean (Mark 7:15). Of course that also means there is no clean or unclean food any more, no kosher food any more if nothing that goes into you makes you unclean. Then Jesus gives a list of vices that makes one unclean and they correspond with many of the Ten Commandments about relating with others. Jesus was certainly not against the Ten Commandments. But now Jesus has lifted them to a new level, the level of the heart. The law that one is now asked to obey is the law of love as we see from Jesus’ list of vices which are sins against love of neighbor. For the same reason the second reading today from James said that religion that is pure is caring for other people (Jas 1:27).

Jesus has now freed people from laws that they could never fully keep and never make them holy. Also it is no longer necessary to eat only kosher, you can eat every food. Now everything in the Old Testament can be seen as a stage along the way, a stage on the relationship of mankind with God. It was only a preparation. The final stage was when Jesus came and lifted everything in the Old Testament to a new level. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. The way above all now to purify ourselves is by obeying the Ten Commandments and refraining from those vices listed by Jesus. When we fall down we can be purified again by receiving the forgiveness of Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There were meet Jesus himself who forgives our sins and makes us pure again. The preaching and teaching of Jesus has freed his disciples in the Gospel today, has purified them. That explains why during the Last Supper in John’s Gospel Jesus says he has purified them (John 15:3) Jesus’ word continues to purify us when we read it, meditate on it, and make it more and more our own so that Jesus’ word becomes more and more part of us. As our second reading today said, the word can save our souls (Jas 1:21)

What matters now is not eating with ritually clean hands, or eating only kosher food. What matters now is our heart. Jesus asks that we wash and purify our hearts by obeying the Ten Commandments and loving our neighbor instead of ritually purifying our hands before eating. If the Pharisees were tempted to think that holiness could be achieved merely by observing ritual purity laws before God, Jesus teaches that holiness cannot be achieved without love of neighbor. What matters now is not eating with ritually clean hands, or eating only kosher. What matters now is our heart. Jesus asks that we wash and purify our hearts. Eat whatever you wish but follow the Ten Commandments and love your neighbor!

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered in a parish in Maryland near where I have joined the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More homilies for the Twenty-Second Sunday Year B

The Commandments - God’s Indicator Panel

Related Homilies: Love flows from the Heart of Jesus to us  - Cor ad cor loquitur 2019

Eat what you want but love your neighbor! 2011

The Ten Commandments Forming Our Conscience

stories about the Commandments