Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Jesus told the crowd, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person, but the things that come out from within are what defile.” We may want to question Jesus as his disciples did. We might begin questioning him about bacteria and parasites, or, if we take his words more spiritually, then we should ask about bad entertainment full of violence and sex. It is absolutely necessary for a Christian to keep custody of their eyes and ears. Those who try to follow Christ and then watch a lot of popular entertainment deceive themselves.
What are we to think then? Was our Lord so naïve? Not at all! Jesus is not concerning himself now with questions of basic hygiene, nor even whether anything that we put into our bodies or minds is good or bad for us. The word he uses here that is translated as “defile” is a very technical word for the Jews, referencing uncleanness. Certain illnesses made a person unclean. Shrimp and pork were unclean. We should not confuse “unclean” with either sinful or dirty. We should think more about our feeling if we were served spider for dinner. There is no logical reason why a spider is a worse animal to eat than a pig, but I do not want it. I could not eat it. It is unclean to me.
The laws on uncleanness are developed very early in the Old Testament, and they built on cultural ideas of what is disgusting or not that existed long before the law. God used disgust, which is natural to us humans, to teach his people about good and bad. The laws of the Old Testament seem to be handed on to Moses directly from the Lord, but they are not perfect expressions of God’s will. Jesus admits as much when he explains why the law about divorce no longer applies. In the Mosaic law, a man must give his wife a bill of divorce. This was because men did in reality divorce their wives, and it was better that there be some structure for the sake of the woman rather than just leaving her abandoned without the freedom to seek a new husband. If there is going to be divorce, then the men ought to give their wives bills of divorce, but as Jesus teaches, there really should not be divorce at all.
So there is truth, but then there are also deeper truths. The law is true, but Jesus revealed deeper truths that make some parts of the law inapplicable today. Throughout the early books of the Bible, there is constant reference to what is clean and what is unclean. Some of it makes sense to us, why a sick person or a moldy shirt would be unclean, and some of it does not, why a woman after giving birth is unclean for one week if it is a boy and two weeks if it is a girl. But then, as the Old Testament progresses, over the next thousand years, we begin to see references to a “clean heart”, which begins to spiritualize the concept. People are invited to look within themselves and see whether they find anything disgusting in their hearts. So the law is indeed “wise and intelligent” as Moses says in the first reading. It is indeed just and worthy of being observed carefully. It takes account of where the people are and leads them to a new level of understanding over many generations. How could anyone find fault with a law when they are judging it by the standards that developed over time because of that very law?
Jesus completes this development in the Gospel today. True cleanliness does not come from handwashing before every meal. True cleanliness is a soul completely dedicated to God. If Jesus were here now, giving us his teaching in our 21st century context, he might say it this way, “What do you find disgusting? That man over there, who hasn’t showered this month, who’s picking his nose as he digs through the dumpster behind McDonald’s looking for half-eaten food? Do you want to know what’s really disgusting? Evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”
So St. James says in the second reading today. He says that religion which is pure and undefiled means caring for the weak and keeping yourself unstained by the world. This is a great distance from a purity that was concerned with keeping different fabrics separated and a consideration of cleanliness that involved ritual washing of hands and not eating pork. According to St. James, the uncleanest thing, the most repulsive act, is to hear the words of the Gospel and fail to put them into practice. What is more disgusting than a dead and rotting thing? And the more precious it was, the more repulsive it is to see it dead and rotting. What is more precious than the Christian faith? Without constant exercise, it becomes dead and decayed and disgusting.
We want to keep our faith alive. Have you ever seen someone in whom the faith is so alive and active that they amaze you? How much more should the words of Moses apply to us Christians today. He says that the Lord God was close to the Hebrews, but he is closer to us: he dwells within our hearts. Moses says that the other nations should look at Israel and say “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.” How much more should other people look at us and say, “Those Christians are so loving and so alive! I want what they have!”
Since unclean means repulsive, clean means the opposite: attractive. If our religion were undefiled, it would be so attractive that the whole world would join. People leave the Church because they see uncleanness in it, and people join the Church because they see something attractive. We are very limited in our ability to eliminate all the uncleanness in the Church, all the hypocrisy and evil doing, but we are unlimited in our ability to become something clean of all that, something attractive. How many people joined the Church just because they saw Blessed Theresa of Calcutta? How many people joined the Church just because they saw St. Francis of Assisi? Or even just heard stories about him 800 years later? A person like that is far more convincing than any argument or slogan. What would happen if we, you and I, decided today to live undefiled lives, to become Saints? We would change the world.