The righteous Pharisees and scribes once again question Jesus about his indifference toward the law because his disciples did not follow the ritual washing of hands before eating. “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders…?” they ask.
Responding, not with an explanation or an excuse, Jesus quotes a passage from Isaiah…”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;’
These Pharisees and scribes appear to obey God’s word in external actions while harboring evil desires and intentions. They cling to the unwritten laws of tradition introduced by their elders, ritual cleansing for example, more fervently than they do to the commands of the Torah. These elders have developed elaborate traditions finding clever ways to avoid observing the commandments of God. The example given in today’s gospel is just one case in point. While ignoring the commandments of God they follow traditions which they believe are true calls to holiness and give credence to their worship.
However, true holiness, the kind that responds to God’s commandments, comes from the heart in loving others and attending to their needs. Rituals may indeed help to remind us of this holiness but they are not the grounds for it. We do externalize what is in our hearts through our words, especially the words we use in worship; although there may be times when our words are not in sync with our deeds. The Pharisees preached eloquently yet their actions conveyed a contrary message.
Are there times when we put tradition ahead of God’s word? Do we sit in judgment of certain people rather than to reach out to them with love and understanding? Mark challenges us to say what we mean and mean what we say, making sure that our hearts are in sync with our lips.
Alice Smith has been a part of Holy Family’s women’s retreat ministry for many years. She lives with her husband on Cape Cod.