In Jesus’ day, and still to this day – our Jewish brothers and sisters consider the Torah – the first 5 books of our Old Testament as the foundation of their faith.
From these five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy --- they developed 613 very specific laws to serve as a day to day practical guide to living their faith.
The Jewish ritual practices, especially those concerned with the issue of purity or purification ---which were a large part of that practical guide, those 613 laws --- helped them to maintain their identity. They were things they did day after day – and at certain times of the day – to help keep them focused.
Jesus did not criticize the Pharisees and Scribes for having these laws and traditions. After all as he grew up in a Jewish family in Nazareth – he would have kept those traditions himself.
NO -- Jesus criticizes them – because they have lost sight of the real purpose of the law which is set forth for them – and us --- in our first reading from Deuteronomy:
Moses stressed that the purpose of the law as a gift given to them by God was to guide them toward greater holiness.
The laws only set safe boundaries, to keep them from straying too far -- Boundaries within which they were to strive for holiness: to be in right relationship with God and with one another.
The goal of laws and regulations is not just to avoid sin – but to become the holy person that God wants you to be.
Once the Jews lose sight of that central purpose – which leads them to criticize Jesus and his disciples in the Gospel ---- their laws and traditions become so complicated that they need another group of professionals – the Scribes – just to interpret it for them. The laws became more important --- than what the law was meant to lead them to.
And the criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees may have been rooted in this one simple thing: as urban dwellers, those who lived in cities and towns –
they could more easily follow their laws and traditions. For instance – they had better access to water needed for all those purification rites – the cleansing of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.
The disciples of Jesus were country people – and spent a lot of time on the road – and travelers do not have the same access to water. And most of the disciples were also fishermen who were used to handling dead fish all the time and could not always perform the purifications needed to make them ritually clean.
But just because they could not keep all the dictates of the law – down to the last letter of the law ------ doesn’t mean they were not striving----- for holiness. . .
In his criticism aimed at the scribes and Pharisees – Jesus cuts to the chase – the evils that can defile us – that make us less holy --- do not come from outside of us – they come from within us.
Drinking from a dirty cup won’t keep us from being holy --- but holding on to a grudge and refusing to forgive someone who wronged us --- can.
So there is a need for everyone in Jesus’ eyes – city people and country folk alike – to not get caught up in simply keeping the laws and regulations --- but to repent –
to get rid of those things on the inside of us that keep us from a right relationship with God and others -- REPENT -- and accept the values of the Kingdom of God --- all to become not just rule-followers & keepers– but to become holy people.
Unlike the Pharisees we have accepted Jesus Christ to repent and so grow in holiness. As the Letter to Saint James explains – it’s not just good enough to say that – we must also live it -- we must be doers of the word and not just hearers.
The living tradition that we have – the rules and regulations of our faith – are there to direct us in our call to holiness – not to be an end in themselves.
Just as it is possible to follow all the laws of the road regarding driving a car --- AND STILL BE A BAD DRIVER --- it is possible to follow all the laws of our faith – AND STILL BE A BAD PERSON – because we are focusing on the externals of observance – instead of letting the observance to transform us and lead us to a more holy life.
So we have all kept a rule this morning – we have come to Mass on Sunday. That rule is there to keep is from straying too far from God. So what about the rest of the day –
what are we going to do to give glory to God? What are we going to do to make sure we grow in holiness – to be in right relationship with God and with one another? Just something we should ponder. . .
So when all is said and done, I think today we are just reminded of the importance of God’s Law and the role of the living, teaching authority of the Church to interpret and guide us in living it – of setting the boundaries.
But we are also reminded that the purpose of laws and teachings --- is to help us grow in holiness.
And as Pope Francis would remind us – holiness always involves doing something -- like caring for orphans and widows –
and others who live on the fringes of society. He would say if we want to know how to be holy --- then serve the poor. Be people of justice-- and that will bring you into harmony with God, with your neighbor, and with all of creation.
Guided by the teachings of Christ and the Church – we need to recognize those evils that lurk in our hearts – turn them over to Christ – so that through him, with him and in him --- we can be transformed – and become more like him – we can indeed become HOLY.
Moments in time...