Eat what you want but love your neighbor!

Homily for Wednesday Week 5 of Year 1

by Fr. Tommy Lane

The way to achieve holiness in the Old Covenant was through the Torah. To allow holiness penetrate every aspect of their lives pious Jews added many customs and oral traditions to the Torah which are called the Halakah. Yesterday we heard one instance of this, washing hands as far as the elbow before eating (Mark 7:1-13). It would have been accompanied by a prayer and was a way to bless the meal and make the meal an act of worship. The Pharisees noticed that Jesus’ disciples did not observe this practice, and presuming themselves to be God’s policemen, the Pharisees complained to Jesus about his disciples. Yesterday we heard Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and today we hear Jesus’ continuing his response, this time to the crowds, and then to the disciples (Mark 7:14-23).

Jesus broadens his response as he talks to the crowds so that the debate is not just about ritual cleansing but about clean and unclean food. It is not what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out of him. Then when Jesus’ disciples questioned him we can see Jesus’ vexation because they did not understand, “Are even you likewise without understanding? Do you not realize that that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile…” (Mark 7:18) The Gospel of Mark consistently portrays the disciples misunderstanding Jesus. Mark gives the disciples a deficiency report after almost every midterm! As Jesus continues to teach he explains that what is important is the interior not the exterior. The Pharisees spoke about hands and mouth but Jesus spoke about heart and stomach. The Pharisees concentrated on what goes into a person but Jesus emphasized what comes out of a person.

The Pharisees were keen observers of the distinction between clean and unclean because it reminded them that the Jews were a people set apart. Yet when God created the world everything was good. Genesis gives us two accounts of creation and each emphasizes the goodness of God’s creation. In part of the second account of creation which we heard today (Gen 2) we read that the trees in Eden were delightful to look at and good for food. But then the laws in Leviticus 11 forbade eating certain kinds of food. Now Jesus declares all food clean; it is no longer necessary to obey the food laws of Leviticus because as Genesis reminds us, everything God created is good. Jesus is restoring the understanding of creation in Genesis once again. If there is no longer a distinction between clean and unclean food, there is also no longer a distinction between clean and unclean persons, between Jew and Gentile.

What matters now is not eating with ritually clean hands, or eating only kosher food. What matters now is our heart. Jesus asks that we wash and purify our hearts instead of ritually purifying our hands before eating. The list of vices that Jesus gives in today’s Gospel, one of twenty-three vice lists in the New Testament, lists sins against love of neighbor. Here again we see another way Jesus has broadened the debate. If the Pharisees were tempted to think that holiness could be achieved merely by observing ritual purity laws before God, Jesus teaches that holiness cannot be achieved without love of neighbor; his list of vices refers to most of the seven commandments of the Decalogue on love of neighbor. What matters now is not eating with ritually clean hands, or eating only kosher. What matters now is our heart. Jesus asks that we wash and purify our hearts. Eat whatever you wish but love your neighbor!

(Some ideas above from Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew: Vol. 2 on Matt 15)

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2011

This homily was delivered in Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.