Scripture Reflections

Sunday, September 2, 2012


Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

September 02, 2012

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18,21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In a job interview the boss opened the session with the applicant: “See, we are very keen on cleanliness. Did you wipe your feet on the doormat as you came in?” The applicant said: “Yes, sir. I did”. Then the boss replied: “We are also very keen on truthfulness. But there is no mat at the door. You fail the test”.

The culture of cleanliness

The modern society attaches premium to the value of cleanliness. The saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” is adopted as the gospel principle of the modern business enterprises and market economy. Indeed, we live in an era of cosmetic and sanitary revolution. The markets are flooded with cosmetic and sanitary products. Over 60 percent of the advertisements and commercials on media are on cosmetics sanitary and beauty products. Beauty pageants have become recurrent celebrations of pride and achievements calling every individual on earth to invest in beauty products. The image-conscious culture of our time has trapped us into a web of unwritten laws, traditions and practices regarding beautification, maintenance, sanitization and purification. In the Biblical times, especially the Jewish culture was thriving on well-developed laws and traditions partly from the Torah and mostly from their religious interpretations.  Most of these traditions on ritual cleansing and purification had assumed practical significance as marks of religious perfection. The violation of any of these traditions or laws was considered scandalous and sinful. The Pharisees and scribes confront Jesus with such an issue: the ritual and physical impurity of some of his disciples at the table. The irony of the episode is that the Lord who is the source of sanctifying grace is now accused of impurity by those whose hearts were shown to be unclean!

Purity—the mark of a True Christian

Jesus turned the tables on a legalistic and “image conscious” society by inviting them to check “what is within” even as they present a seemingly clean external. Jesus exposed the paradox of their “clean periphery” and the “unclean center”. In the final analysis it becomes clear that this high culture of purity, in fact, floats and thrives on the low culture of impurities. Further more, Jesus inverts the measure of purity—purity as a virtue does not consist in the cleanliness of the externals such as the body, the clothing, food and the environment, rather in the purity of the inner chamber of the heart. Jesus is not negating the need for external purity, but is emphasizing the order of priority. Physical cleanliness follows the purity of heart. To be a Christian, then, is to be a clean person, pure in thoughts, intentions and dealings. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall have the vision of God” (Mt 5: 8). No wonder, Jesus has made it an imperative for His disciples to wash themselves in the waters of baptism and cleanse in the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit.

This purity is now made possible by three elements: 1) The Word of God, 2) The sacraments, and 3) Charity. 

The Word of God: The Source of Purity

The incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, is the norm and source of purity. He is the Holy One, Who became man that mankind may be made holy. It is in and through Him that we have the vision of God. The fallen humanity, which languishes in the filth of sin, has come to know what it means to be clean and pure by gazing on the Crucified and risen Lord. We have come to understand how to live in purity primarily by accepting the person of Jesus, in His teachings, examples and abiding presence. Indeed, the one who follows the precepts of the Lord will always have His abiding presence (the first reading).

The Word of God sanctifies us from all impurities (1 Timothy 4:5). Keeping the covenantal relationship with God and observing His commandments and precepts will help us live in grace and cleanse our hearts, minds and attitudes. Jesus criticized the Pharisees and scribes for being selective in their acceptance of the Sacred Scripture as they emphasized some traditions and ignored the major precepts of the Law of God. But for the Christians, the Scripture is to be accepted and interpreted in its entirety. St Augustine has warned us of the danger of the selective manner of approaching and interpreting the Scripture, as he said: “If you choose to follow the teachings of Jesus that are appealing to you, and neglect those that are difficult for you to practice, you are not following Jesus, but your own self-interest”. Therefore, know your God and yourself by knowing the Word of God. Read the Bible on a daily basis, reflect on it relating it to your life experiences and live on the commandments and covenant of God. This way you will walk in the path of holiness.

Sacraments: The visible signs of sanctifying grace

Rituals are part of any culture. Christian culture is rooted on sacramental rituals. The seven sacraments of the Church impart to the believer the grace necessary for his/her life. In baptism one is washed clean of all his/her sins and impurities accumulated in his life and shared from the original sin. It is a sacrament of re-birth, being born again as a child of God who is pure, holy and immaculate. The sacrament of reconciliation ritually sanctifies the sinner from all the impurities of his actions and omissions. Repentance is a necessary condition for the sanctifying grace. The Holy Eucharist allows the Christian to enter into the sacrificial grace of Christ, to wash His impurities in the blood of the Divine savior. In the Eucharist, what is impure is made pure and filled with the strength of grace that no more one may live in guilt, sin and impurity. The other sacraments (confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick) also impart to the recipient sanctifying grace along with the specific grace necessary for the state of life he/she enters. So, frequent reception of sacraments is necessary for a life of purity.

Love: manifestation of sanctifying grace

Now, rituals, devoid of the spirit can remain just that—rituals. The sanctifying grace of the rituals are to be lived and practiced in the virtue of charity—selfless love. Love has the power to heal and cleanse. Any ritual without love is ineffective. Love impels one to put into action what he/she celebrates in the sacraments. Love teaches us that clean hands and clever minds are not substitutes for a clean conscience. A clean conscience is the manifestation of a loving heart. The nursery rhyme “Clean little hands are nice to see” teaches the children of the beauty of cleanliness, but the “commandment of love” teaches us of the beauty of a life well founded purified in the sacrifice of love. This is what St James asserts to us: Obey the commandments. Be doers, not just listeners of the Word of God. By love and charity we enflesh the Word of God. In your love incarnate the Word of God in the present. We are not only called to read, learn and interpret the scripture, but we are challenged to become the Word by doing God’s Holy Will. This is the essence of our religion. “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.” (James 1: 27)

Heart is the center of purity. We need to avoid the extremities of ritualism and self-validation. Love and rituals are not contradictory. They compliment our life of purity.

How clean am I? Do I pay attention to the purity of my thoughts, words, intentions and dealings as much as I care for the cleanliness and grooming of my body? How often do I notice impurities in my thoughts, words, dealings and intentions? What steps do I take to cleanse my conscience and sanctify my life?

Thought Capsule:

“Show me a people's bathhouses and bathrooms, and I will show you what they desire, what they ignore, sometimes what they fear – and a significant part of who they are.”
(Katherine Ashenburg in her book Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing

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