Why would anyone make a young child memorize the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes? Why would it be important to know the precepts of the Church and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?
Most of us know the answer to those questions right away. We know that the wisdom of God has been given to us in many forms, and it’s important to have that wisdom embedded in us. We know it’s important to have guidance and direction, because most of us can talk ourselves into many things if we don’t act out of greater wisdom.
We also know that simply memorizing and repeating the laws and precepts of the Church is not enough and that simply following the letter of the law — and not the spirit of the law — can lead us to evil rather than good. In Mark’s Gospel, we learn that Jesus attempts to teach His disciples what it means to know the law and follow the letter and the spirit of the law.
The confrontation in the Gospel (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) involves people who use the law and outward appearance to judge other people. They noticed that the disciples of Jesus are not literally following the law and made some judgments because of that observed behavior. Instead of taking the time to understand the why of the situation, they simply confront and accuse, trying to trip people up on the law, rather than helping them further their journey of faith.
We all know from Jesus that He did not come to abolish the law; He came to bring it to its fulfillment. He tried to teach us through His life that it is not enough to simply refrain from literally killing people — we must also grow to the point where we don’t take any other human life through gossip and word, for one example. When we gossip, no blood is shed, but someone’s reputation is killed.
Many of us partake in gossip and see it as such a small infraction, but it violates the law that Jesus has given us to follow. Many of us overuse the earth’s resources under the claim of personal possession and power, but Jesus taught us we are to use God’s creation for the glory of God and for the common good. Amassing unused resources and wealth while other people starve or go homeless violates the law that Jesus asked us to follow. We often refuse to forgive our enemies but seldom see that refusal as a violation of what Jesus asks of us. When we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” do we make that connection, or do we merely feel satisfied having following the letter of the law?
It’s possible to give lip service to our worship of God while our hearts are far from Jesus. We can look excellent on the outside and be like “whitened sepulchers” on the inside. Cleanliness and purity were important in the time of Jesus because you could die of many things that came from a lack of hygiene. It makes sense that healthy habits and bodily functions would be a focus of life in Jesus’ time. We’re reminded now of the power of viruses and germs. But the focus in this Gospel is about the interior corruption that happens to us if we’re not careful about the attitudes of our hearts. Jesus reminds us that evil comes from within us, comes out of us, and damages us and others.
There is a long and specific list of evil attitudes and practices that can easily find a home in our minds and hearts.
Who hasn’t struggled with arrogance or greed? Who hasn’t struggled with being envious or misusing the great amount of freedom that we have? Who hasn’t struggled with fulfilling the promises of faithfulness that we made to ourselves or another or struggling to let go of the temptation to find revenge? Who doesn’t struggle with the proper use of our bodies and how we use them in relationship with other people?
Jesus has made quite the list that pinpoints many of the greatest struggles to be a human being in our time and place. This might be a great time to take a look at ourselves and the inner workings of our minds and hearts. There is a temple that needs to be cleansed, and it resides in each of our minds and hearts.
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.