29th August, 2021

Washing hands under a running tap

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mk 7:1-8. 14-15. 21-23

Two things came to my mind as I read and meditated on today’s Gospel, but before we get to that, I’d like to recall the beginning of that very interesting conversation between Jesus and the Jews that we heard about in today’s Word of God. As we probably remember, the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Jesus and noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. I think we can easily imagine how disgusted and frustrated all these people must have been, especially since the Jewish tradition and many other beautiful Jewish rites and rituals played such an important role for them from the very beginning of their lives. This is how they were brought up by their parents and grandparents.

At one point I thought to myself that this particular Gospel might hold the perfect message for us especially in this ongoing pandemic time, and it can be a very useful reminder to wash or sanitise our hands when we enter the church and before we leave after Mass. As we have heard – The Pharisees, and the Jews in general never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the marketplace, they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. So, as we can see, not only our team of stewards but also the Gospel encourages us to care for our safety, health and hygiene. But on the other hand, it seems to me that Jesus wants to tell us something more important and something much deeper than that. I am sure that – as always – He wants to help us better understand our faith, our relationship with God and the essence of Christianity.

The second thing that came to my mind after reading this Gospel was my childhood and my dear mum who whenever calling me or my brother into the dining room for any meal, lunch or dinner, she always used to say very strongly: Before you start eating, go to the bathroom first and wash your hands very slowly and thoroughly please! Take your time please, dinner will be waiting for you! I remember that neither me nor my brother – as little kids and then as teenagers – never liked this reminder because we thought we knew everything best. Of course, today both my brother and I look at many things from a completely different perspective…

But I am pretty sure that today’s Gospel tells us not only about hygiene and washing hands. Today Jesus wants to tell us something else, something much more important, something spiritual, especially in this passage when he quotes the prophet Isaiah and when he applies these quite harsh words of the prophet to the Pharisees and the scribes: These people honour me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless. I don’t think any of us would like to hear such bitter and unpleasant words about our faith and our being Catholics or Christians. Probably many of us would feel very offended and discouraged if we heard these or similar things about ourselves. Anyway, when we listen to these words, it is worth asking some very fundamental questions: Why do I actually go to church? Why do I practice my faith? Why do I pray and participate in the sacraments of the Church? Today Jesus wants to remind all of us that He doesn’t want us to go to church just to fulfil our Christian duty in order to feel more relaxed because we have done what we should or had to do. This is definitely not enough! As we have heard, Jesus also wants to warn us against misunderstanding Christianity – or in other words – against understanding Christianity as a religion in which: tradition, observances and principles play the most important role. These people honour me only with lip-service while their hearts are far for me. The worship they offer me is worthless. God doesn’t want us to come to church only out of tradition or out of habit, because our grandparents and parents used to do the same. He doesn’t want us to perform or take part in any, even the most beautiful rites such as: baptism, Sunday Mass, first Holy Communion, sacrament of marriage and many others – if they are only a tradition or duty for us and the meaning of which we don’t even try to understand. God doesn’t want us to be present here only physically, while our thoughts and desires are somewhere else, far away.

What does it mean to be close to God with our hearts? It means to be aware that Christianity is not only a religion, it is not a collection of various observances, rules, commandments, but it is primarily a relationship of love and friendship with God, a relationship that shapes our daily lives. Being close to God with our heart means trusting him, talking to Him and listening to Him also when we are alone in our homes in the silence of our hearts. To be close to God means humbly accepting and respecting the moral teaching of the Church on human life from conception to natural death, marriage, family, gender, and on many other moral aspects. To be close to God with our hearts means overcoming in the sacrament of confession and with God’s grace all the evil that Jesus mentions in today’s Gospel: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, envy, slander, pride, folly, and many others.

Let us ask God that, thanks to his grace, our Christianity and piety will always be credible, pure, sincere and authentic. May Jesus say about us: These people honour me not only with their lips, not only in the church, but also with their hearts they are very close to me. Amen.

Fr Gregory