August 30, 2009 - Year B
Dt 4:1-2, 6-8
Moses said to the people:“Now, Israel, hear the
statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to
observe, that you may live, and may enter in and
take possession of the land which the LORD, the
God of your fathers, is giving you. In your
observance of the commandments of the LORD, your
God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add
to what I command you nor subtract from it.
Observe them carefully, for thus will you give
evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the
nations, who will hear of all these statutes and
say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and
intelligent people.’ For what great nation is
there that has gods so close to it as the LORD,
our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or
what great nation has statutes and decrees that
are as just as this whole law which I am setting
before you today?”
Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5
R. (1a)One who does justice
will live in the presence of the Lord.
Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice;
who thinks the truth in his heart
and slanders not with his tongue.
R. One who does justice
will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who harms not his fellow man,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
by whom the reprobate is despised,
while he honors those who fear the LORD.
who does justice will live in the presence of
Who lends not his money at usury
and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
shall never be disturbed.
who does justice will live in the presence of
Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Dearest brothers and sisters: All good giving
and every perfect gift is from above, coming
down from the Father of lights, with whom there
is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He
willed to give us birth by the word of truth
that we may be a kind of first fruits of his
Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in
you and is able to save your souls. Be doers of
the word and not hearers only, deluding
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God
and the Father is this: to care for orphans and
widows in their affliction and to keep oneself
unstained by the world.
Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
When the Pharisees with some scribes who had
come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 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
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to
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
but the things that come out from within are
“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
a man was waiting for a taxi. A beggar came
along and asked him for some money. The man
ignored him. But being a professional, the
beggar kept on pestering him.
The man became
irritated when he realized that the beggar would
not leave him alone unless he parts with some
money. Suddenly an idea struck him.
He told the beggar,
"I do not have money, but if you tell me what
you want to do with the money, I will certainly
"I would have bought
a cup of tea", replied the beggar. The man said,
"Sorry man. I can offer you a cigarette instead
of tea". He then took a pack of cigarettes from
his pocket and offered one to the beggar.
The beggar told, "I
don't smoke as it is injurious to health."
The man smiled and
took a bottle of whisky from his pocket and told
the beggar, "Here, take this bottle and enjoy
the stuff. It is really good". The beggar
refused by saying, "Alcohol muddles the brain
and damages the liver". The man smiled again. He
told the beggar, "I am going to the race course.
Come with me and I will arrange for some tickets
and we will place bets. If we win, you take the
whole amount and leave me alone". As before, the
beggar politely refused the latest offer by
saying, "Sorry sir, I can't come with you as
betting on horses is a bad habit."
Suddenly the man
felt relieved and asked the beggar to come to
his home with him. Finally, the beggar's face
lit up in anticipation of receiving at least
something from the man. But he still had his
doubts and asked the man, "Why do you want me to
go to your house with you". The man replied, "My
wife always wanted to see how a man with no Bad
habits looks like."
The Pharisees came from Jerusalem
to watch the words of Jesus and catch him
committing mistakes on the various aspects of
the law. We know that all that they were busy
with was to impose restrictions on people,
without giving importance to life. Jesus
enumerates the nature of our hearts. What comes
from within is what defiles and what goes in
does not defile us. Well, that is what we
normally see and hear in our daily lives.
Sometimes our insight into Scripture can be
enhanced by hearing a story from another source.
On considering today's Gospel, I have gained a
deeper sense of its message through a Zen
Buddhist story told about Nan-in, a teacher who
was active a hundred years ago in Japan.
It seems that one day, Nan-in received a
university professor who came to inquire about
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup
full, and then kept on pouring. The professor
watched the overflow until he could no longer
restrain himself. "It is overflowing! No more
will go in!"
"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of
your own opinions and speculations. How can I
show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?
In today's Gospel, Jesus encounters a group of
people who, like Nan-in's visitor, are full cups
that need to be emptied if they are ever to
receive his message.
Jesus is in Galilee, yet some Pharisees and
scribes have made the trip down from Jerusalem
because of him. The author of Mark's Gospel has
already told us of the conspiracy to kill him
[Mark 3:6], and it will be in Jerusalem, of
course, that he is put to death. So it seems
particularly ominous that these people have come
all this way to gather around Jesus.
What is it that they say to him? Do they look
for some teaching that will guide them to live a
better life? Do they seek some word of hope and
encouragement? No. What they do instead is find
fault. They lack the nerve to confront Jesus
directly, even though he has violated many of
their cherished precepts, so instead they find
fault with some of his disciples.
What they criticize is not a huge failing, moral
or spiritual, but that these disciples omit an
observance of human origin, a pious custom. They
notice certain disciples of Jesus eating with
unwashed hands, and this scandalizes them.
The hand washing in question is not a hygienic
measure. It is a practice meant to wash away
ritual defilement, such as that caused by
touching something or somebody deemed unclean.
The Law of Moses mandates hand washing only for
priests attending to their duties within the
area set aside as sacred. The Pharisees,
however, extend the practice to other
circumstances. Thus they use this hand washing
as what one scholar calls a "boundary marker a
way for them to distinguish themselves from the
surrounding pagan population.
So these scribes and Pharisees who gather around
Jesus ask him why his disciples fail to keep the
tradition of the elders. They are what Nan-in
calls full cups that must be emptied. What fills
them are their own opinions and speculations.
They have pegged Jesus and his disciples as bad
people, and it is this condemnation that absorbs
their energy. They have no energy left for
anything better, anything more important. Their
cups are full, and anything more poured in at
this moment would only be wasted.
Jesus recognizes these Pharisees and scribes as
not simply a nuisance, but as examples of a
spiritual danger that can threaten any of us. He
calls together the people around him, the crowd,
so they can hear the warning he feels compelled
to offer them. In effect, what Jesus tells the
crowd is this:
"Look out! Purity is not a matter of keeping
external rules, without regard for what's inside
you. Righteousness is not simply how you behave
when people are watching. Just as you have an
inner aspect as well as an outer one, even so,
keeping rules is not what it's about. You must
pay attention to the condition of your heart!"
What Jesus means by heart is not the muscle in
our chest that pumps blood, nor our emotional
aspect the Valentine's day heart. Jesus
understands the heart in the Hebrew sense as the
center or core of the person, the inner self.
He announces that the heart is where the problem
lies. Our hearts are full. What fills them is,
all too often, poisons that kill our spirits and
the spirits of people we influence. Jesus lists
these poisons. He names such evil intentions as
fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice,
wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy,
slander, pride, and folly. Like Nan-in's tea
cup, our hearts overflow, but what they hold are
not simply our own opinions and speculations,
but poisons that can prove lethal for ourselves
and other people.
This Gospel is not intended to render us
helpless, but to make us see a true problem, the
challenge before us as people of faith.
We live in a consumer society that bombards us
with messages about how consumption can solve
our problems. But consumption cannot solve this
problem that Jesus exposes. What we need is not
to pour still more tea into our overflowing cup.
What we need is to empty and detoxify our hearts
from the poisons flooding forth from it. The
problem is not external, and neither is the
What we require, at the center of our being, is
for God to create a new heart. This needs to
happen, not one time only, but continually. Over
and over again, the overflowing cup must be
emptied, the poison purged from our hearts and
lives, so that the transforming grace of Christ
can find a home in us. Along with Nan-in's
university professor, we must be set free from
our own opinions and speculations, and become,
like children, susceptible to wonder at the
miracles around and within us.
Christian discipleship offers many ways by which
our hearts can be emptied out and become ready
to receive the gift of transforming grace. Each
of these ways must be used wisely if we are to
have tea cups that are empty, not overflowing;
hearts that are empty, not loaded with toxins.
There is one such way that I would like us to
recall now, for the lack of it is sadly apparent
among the scribes and Pharisees who surround
Jesus in this morning's Gospel.
All we hear from these Pharisees and scribes
concerns a custom of merely human origin,
something of small import in the vast complex of
faith and life which is Judaism at that time.
Theirs is an unexciting complaint, one that
hardly suggests the adventure of the Exodus and
Exile, the profundity of the Torah and the
Prophets. The one thing they choose to say to
Jesus is a long way indeed from the
loving-kindness and mercy that Israel's Holy One
shows to his people.
May it not be so among us! As Christians, we
must not let peripheral matters take center
stage. To prevent this, we must repeatedly
challenge ourselves. We must turn time and again
to the majors of discipleship. Yes, we do well
to measure our lives, as persons and
communities, by nothing less than the expansive
standard of the Great Commandment that we love
God with the entirety of our being and love our
neighbors all of them as we love ourselves. Our
discipleship needs to be characterized by
nothing less than wonder, love, and praise.
These are among the important principles in
which our generous and awesome God invites us to
become an adult. These are ways we are set free
from a host of poisons. In such ways as these,
our tea cups are emptied of all our opinions and
speculations that they may be filled instead
with the gift of that bountiful life which
surpasses all that we can ask or imagine.