Catholic Preaching on "the Law"

The 'religion of the heart' is the opposite of the 'doctrine of the Pharisees'

[Unofficial translation from Fatto Quotidiano, August 29, 2021) 


The Sunday Gospel
Antonio Spadaro, SJ, Editor of La Civiltà Cattolica

Jesus is surrounded. It is not people who want to listen to him talk that are around him, it is not only those who are hungry for bread or do miracles. A circle of "Pharisees and some of the scribes, who came from Jerusalem," encircles him. Mark the evangelist describes this meeting (Mk 7: 1-23) of people who intend to question Jesus after having seen the behavior of his disciples. Did the disciples propound strange notions? No. The Pharisees and scribes had noticed that "some of his disciples ate food with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands." That man [Jesus] influenced the behavior of those around him, and therefore he was a dangerous teacher. Jesus changed the way people lived and acted, [teaching them] not to respect traditional practices and to subvert the established order. What order? That of formalities, of banality, which reduces transcendence to an esoteric or external phenomenon. The Pharisees, in fact, and all the Jews do not eat if they have not washed their hands thoroughly, following the tradition of the ancients. So for this reason a circle had taken root around Jesus: to ask him for an account and ratification: "Why do your disciples not behave according to the tradition of the ancients, but take food with impure hands?"

Jesus does not profess a strange doctrine, which would always be contestable or questionable: he simply says that certain pious practices are external things that have nothing to do with the heart, with the feeling, with the taste for true holiness. The human being, in fact, overwhelmed by formal obligations, no longer has the time to discern his own heart and be impelled to express love for God. Everything boils down to inveigling. And behind this inveigling there was a false vision of the relationship with God, as if someone had to put himself in a "pure" condition to turn to God. No, we do not need disinfectant washes to dialogue with God. In reality these washes only end up immunizing us from God himself, sterilizing us from faith.

Jesus does not love inveigling, nor is he that kind of man. And he gets angry. Before the circle of hypocrites, he replies: "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, hypcrites, as it is written: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'"Jesus clearly distinguishes the "religion from close to the heart" from the "doctrine of precepts." Pay attention, however: Jesus does not trivially contrast the interior with the exterior. Instead, he lashes out against action that does not respond to the heart. How many people even today are tied to practices in which faith is relegated to a well-sewn lace, to the incomprehensible formula, or to the perfect gesture!

Jesus physically breaks the circle that had tightened around him, and he calls the crowd, opening a breach. The circles that surround it must be broken otherwise the ball will bounce around inside. It is not a question of disposing of a circle of hypocrites, but of making the message of the Gospel resound. And so he shouts to the crowd: "Listen to me, everyone, and understand well!" And the basis for a fundamental message. And this is the true Gospel of salvation: "There is nothing outside someone that, entering into him, can make him impure. But it is the things that come out of a person that make him impure." In fact, the motivations of evil that Jesus lists come from the heart: "uncleanness, thefts, homicides, adulteries, greed, wickedness, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, foolishness."

Jesus overturns the perspective: by declaring all foods pure, Jesus affirms that the transcending relationship with God either touches the profound authenticity of life or it is useless, devout, and trashy junk.