William Barclay in The Daily Study Bible tells the story of an old Jewish rabbi in the Roman prison diagnosed with acute dehydration which would have led to his death. The prison guards insisted that the rabbi had been given his quota of drinking water. So the prison doctor and the officer in charge instructed the guards to watch the rabbi and ascertain what he was doing with his ration of water. They were shocked to find that the rabbi was using almost all his water for traditional ritual washing before prayer and meals. Today’s Gospel tells us how the tradition-addicted Pharisees started questioning Jesus when his disciples omitted the ritual washing of hands in public before a meal.
Jesus warns the Pharisees against their tendency to equate traditional “human precepts” with God’s will. He blames the scribes and the Pharisees for giving undue importance to external observances in the name of “tradition,” while ignoring the Law’s real spirit.
True religion should focus on the essentials. Jesus declares that it is our inner motivations and dispositions that produce our purity or impurity. True religion is serving God and all His children with a pure and holy heart.
Legalism takes account of man’s outward actions; but it takes no account of his inward feelings. One may be meticulously serving God in outward things, and bluntly disobeying God in inward things.
There is a story about a Muslim pursuing an enemy to kill him. In the midst of the pursuit, the Azan, or public call to prayer, sounded. Instantly the Muslim got off his horse, unrolled his prayer mat, knelt down and prayed the required prayers as fast as he could. Then he leaped back on his horse to pursue his enemy in order to kill him.
Jesus was not criticizing rituals given in the Mosaic Law, but the giving of disproportionate importance to these things while neglecting what was far more important, the love of God and the care for one's fellow-human beings. By insisting that uncleanness comes from violations of the moral law rather than of minute ritual prescriptions, Jesus denied a basic principle of Jewish religion and set aside a considerable amount of Mosaic Law. "Nothing that enters a man from outside can make him impure; that which comes out of him, and only that, constitutes impurity."
The point is clear. Righteousness is not what we do on the outside, but who we are on the inside. Righteousness is not about the hand; it is about the heart.
The first reading explains that religion is a Covenant relationship with a caring, providing and protecting God, fostered by keeping His Commandments given through Moses. God gave Israel the Law so that the Israelites might keep their Covenant with Yahweh and thank Him for His love and fidelity to His Chosen People.
In the second reading, St. James defines true religion as keeping the word of God and doing His will by helping the needy, the poor and the weak in the community. He challenges Christians to become doers of the word, not merely hearers.
For almost 50 years Mother Teresa worked in the slums of Calcutta, India. She worked among the most forsaken people on earth. We would recoil from most of the people that she touched every day – the dispossessed, the downtrodden, the diseased, the desperate. And yet, everybody who met Mother Teresa remarked on her warm smile. How, after almost 50 years of working in conditions like that did she keep a warm smile on her face? Mother explains that it is interesting. "When I was leaving home in Yugoslavia at the age of 18 to become a nun, my mother told me something beautiful and very strange”. She said, 'You go put your hand in Jesus’ hand and walk along with him.'" And that was the secret of Mother Teresa's life ever after. (Rev. King Duncan). Many of us here have good jobs. And we live in nice homes, and we have easy situations. But we don't have the warm smile on our faces that this little nun, working in the most desperate situation imaginable, had on her face. What's the difference? It may be that we've never put our hand in Jesus’ hand. It may be that we have him only on our lips as St. James remarks in the second reading.
Let us accept the challenge to become hearers and doers of God’s word. Let us ask ourselves how the Sunday or daily readings are affecting or changing our lives. That will show us whether we are being attentive listeners to, and doers of, God’s word. We become more fully Jesus’ family members, only when we consistently “hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21). When we receive Jesus in Holy Communion today, let us ask him for the grace to become the doers of his word as he was the doer of his Fathers’ will.