Wednesday, 29 August 2018



‘Cleanliness is next to godliness,’ as the saying goes.   And as a matter of hygiene we were all taught to wash our hands before meals.   But the problem Jesus faced was that certain Pharisees equated ritual cleanliness with godliness.   Unless a person performed the detailed washings required by tradition he was considered ritually impure, and consequently displeasing to God.  For them, it was impossible for a Jew to have a good relationship while eating with ritually unwashed hands.  For Jesus, it was ridiculous to make eternal salvation depend on the ritualised cleansing of our hands and the pots and pans in which people cooked their food.  Such man-made traditions trivialised true religion and became so numerous that only religious experts could know and observe them.   As for ignorant non-observers, they were written off as unclean sinners, unfit for God’s presence.  So, it’s not surprising that certain Pharisees, who were seeking to catch Jesus out, protested when He failed to insist that His disciples washed their fingers before eating.  After all, Jesus was considered to be a man of God, even a prophet.  As such, He should have taught His disciples to observe the traditions relating to ritual washing.  
Let’s see what tradition demanded in washing before meals.   The water used had to be poured from special purification jars, otherwise it would be unclean.   The amount used must be sufficient to fill 1½ eggs, and this must first be poured over the finger tips and run up to the wrists. The palm was cleansed by rubbing the other fist into it.  Finally, water must be poured over the wrists and run down to the finger tips.  To omit the slightest detail in this elaborate procedure would render someone unclean in the sight of God.  No wonder Jesus was exasperated at such scrupulosity!

The Pharisees had got their priorities all wrong.  Instead of being obsessed by external ritual cleanliness they should concentrate on inner cleanliness of heart.  That was what was pleasing to God.  By this Jesus meant much more than not having a dirty mind.  We must be single minded in our commitment to God.  We can’t serve two masters.   We must not only do what is right, but must want only what is good and wholesome.Our minds and hearts must be set on God, and that must be expressed in the way we behave.  All this is summed up in the Beatitude, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart; they shall see God.’   This has nothing to do with ritual cleanliness.Certainly, we don’t share the Pharisees’ obsession with ritual cleanliness.  But we can become pre-occupied with the externals of religion, which in themselves may be good. Some of us may be obsessed with rubrical precision in the celebration of the liturgy.  But that doesn’t necessarily lead to devout worship. And it’s certainly not sufficient for us to be practising Catholics, who go through the motions of religion.  In spite of this, we may be filled with anger, bitterness and resentment. We may be unforgiving and lack compassion.  We may be more materialistic and self-centred than many people who profess no religion.If so, these faults contradict the life we profess.  People who respect us as practising Catholics would be shocked if they knew what we were really like –how we behave outside church, what we were thinking, and some of our desires.  This certainly doesn’t mean we should abandon our religious practices, but with God’s help, we must try to ensure that our lives are consistent with the faith we profess. Jesus is here urging purity of thought and desire, which will give rise to innocent Godly behaviour. Then, indeed, we will be pure in heart and will see God.  Fr. Mark Brocklehurst O.P. likened this inner purification to cleaning a window and so being able to see the beauty outside ourselves –God himself. 
Isidore O.P.

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