Year B: Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Tradition of the Elders.

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15,21-23

Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles [and beds].) So, the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within, and they defile.”

 Discussion Questions: 

  1. Jesus often criticized the Pharisees for what is referred to as “polishing the cup”, being more concerned with how things look on the outside, rather than with how the heart is ordered spiritually. In what areas of your faith life do you experience more concern with appearances and honoring religious traditions, than with the inner state of the heart?
  2. What do you think is the ultimate purpose of God’s revealed law? Do you think your life would be easier or harder if you had never been taught this law?
  3. Have you outgrown being a legalist: What are the dangers of legalistic and dualistic thinking when it comes to following Jesus?
  4. There is a saying; “the sins we commit are really the symptoms of the sin.” Are you aware of your “internal drivers”, the root behaviors that come from within you which can lead to evil thoughts, actions, and separation in your relationship with God? How do you go about developing this kind of internal awareness?

Biblical Context

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

After our long sojourn through John 6, we return to the Gospel of Mark at what is nearly its crucial midpoint. Mark presents this interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees without specifying its precise time or place, thereby placing it in a category of widely applicable controversy and teaching. While Mark frames the incident as a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes, what is really at stake is the question of the heart of religion in contrast to customs or traditions that may or may not function to bring people closer to God.

When the Pharisees speak of compulsory hand washings, they are referring to the traditions that grew up around the Mosaic law. While not the law itself, these practices were intended to work like a “fence around the Torah;” they were behaviors which would facilitate full obedience to the law. In every society, from churches to families, once-beneficial practices easily become rigid customs that usurp the authority of law. Jesus disapproved of the Pharisees not for their hygienic practices, but because they had allowed their ritual behaviors, the fence around the Torah, to supersede the underlying intent of the law itself.

The value of ritual purity originated in respect for the Temple, but in some cases, it had become degraded into a practical elitism that marginated others. Women and men came to be labeled as sinners or unclean on account of their professions or even conditions of gender. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for sanctifying legalisms that their lifestyle allowed them to maintain while they denigrated the people of God who could not afford the same privilege. In a statement that Paul would elaborate on in 1 Corinthians 11:17, Jesus quoted Isaiah and declared that the worship of those scribes and Pharisees was worthless because they had made doctrines of their preferences while ignoring the intent of God’s commandments.

This week’s readings call us to ever-deeper and broader integrity. Do we admit our own need for conversion and help to grow in grace? The readings warn us that our critiques of others put our own values and integrity on show and reveal whether our priorities come from a God-touched heart or a desire to look pious. When we discuss what “should” be done, our remembrance of Moses and Jesus demands that we question whether our interpretation of God’s will is life-giving to all people or self-serving.

Jesus gives us the final test: Religion that is pure is this — care for the most needy, and freedom from the false values of society.

 Finding the Drivers

John Shea

At the core of the Jewish tradition is the double commandment to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:29-30 and parallels). As generation succeeds generation, many ancillary traditions are created to adapt this love of God and neighbor to new situations. In theory, these traditions are always secondary to the center, to the loving heart of the tradition itself. They are evaluated by how they correspond to this center and heart. However, in practice, these traditions become functionally autonomous. They take on a life of their own. The distinction between the center and the periphery, the heart and the lips is obscured. The valid question of embodying the center and heart in particular traditions is reduced to an obsession with externals.

Also, the center and the heart are inside. They cannot be observed and measured directly. The traditions are external behaviors and often deal with objects (certain foods, cups, pots, bronze kettles, etc.). These are able to be seen and scrutinized. The heart may be hidden; but hands are available for inspection. Therefore, those who see them-selves as guardians of the tradition (the center and heart) are prone to police traditions. They ask trivial questions because they have forgot-ten the important question. They no longer know the difference between God’s commandment and human customs. But Jesus, the Son of God, lives out of the heart and center. He prophetically confronts their hypocrisy, their inability to adequately hold together the inner love of God and neighbor and the outer ways that love should be embodied.

The Pharisees and scribes are concerned with ritual defilement, eating with unclean hands, cooking with unclean pots, and, therefore, ultimately putting unclean food in you. The movement is from something outside designated as unclean going inside the person and contaminating them in the process. With this understanding all attention and energy is, in the external world, fearing and avoiding an outer uncleanness that could inadvertently produce personal impurity.

Jesus, as all spiritual teachers, is concerned about moral defilement, how evil comes into the world. This happens in the exact opposite way of ritual impurity. Defilement begins and develops in the human heart, in the cultivation of evil thoughts, intentions, and imaginings. People work from the inside out; and if their minds are full of fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentious-ness, envy, slander, pride, and folly, these become the drivers of actions. The Pharisees and scribes are obsessed with the ritual defilement and the external world. Jesus’ attention is on the internal world and moral havoc it unleashes. He is intent on finding the drivers of immoral behavior.


Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.