Twenty Second Sunday | Year B
Mark 7:1-8. 14-15. 21-23
The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, and they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. For the Pharisees, and the Jews in general, follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes. So these Pharisees and scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?’ he answered, ‘It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so righty prophesied in this passage of scripture:
This people honours me only with lip-service,
while their hearts are far from me.
The worship they offer me is worthless,
the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.
You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human regulations.’
He called the people to him again and said, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that goes into a man from the outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean. For it is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, ride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean.’
Jesus described the Pharisees and scribes as hypocrites because they made no real attempt to work on their faults and vices; instead they substituted ritual activities which they imposed on others and by which they judged others.
Using these ritual activities as the measure of the virtue of others meant that the Pharisees could also use carrying out these activities as a means of determining their own holiness. Essentially they had set up a false measuring device, which enabled them to avoid making any changes in their interior disposition. Their hearts were far from God and their actions contravened the Ten Commandments, while they deluded themselves that they were more virtuous than others.
A measuring device is only as good as the calibration that has checked its accuracy against a set standard. An examination of conscience is like a spiritual measuring device. Its usefulness depends on how well the conscience being examined has been calibrated against the standards of discipleship found in the life of Jesus. The Pharisees would have come out of an examination of conscience glowing with pride because their poorly calibrated consciences – for which the calibration standard was the performance of useless ritual actions – could not give a real reading on the state of their hearts.
The honest and committed disciple of Jesus constantly strives to align his or her conscience with the standards of Jesus, which means trying to become more like him. The honesty of this commitment leads over time to an increasing sensitivity to pockets of dis-ease or discomfort when there is a little falsity somewhere in an examination of conscience – a justification for something, an excuse, a rationalization, none of which are convincing at a deeper level. Having the courage to follow these indicators to their source in order to make changes is a means of advancement in the spiritual life.
But deep within us there may be other hidden standards against which we unconsciously measure ourselves as adults, and against which we often fail. The unreasonable demands of a parent years ago, the guilt inculcated by childhood experience of a “hellfire” religion, the inferiority complex inflicted by a sibling or partner – these types of standards can interfere with our conscience as the standard we use to examine our spiritual life. Their interference is often signalled by anxiety which can quickly spiral into even more negative emotions. In these circumstances it is best to turn to simple prayer, seeking the help of Jesus to restore our interior peace.
Jesus does not use the honest acknowledgement of our faults as a means to “beat us up” or plunge us into an anxious state. His gifts in response to our acknowledgement of fault – as judged by a well-formed conscience – are peace and joy.