1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30
Mothers of young children are accustomed to saying daily, in an automatic fashion, "Wash your hands before we eat" or "Did you remember to wash"? This reminder becomes almost a ritual preceding a meal, a tradition of motherhood. It is good to instill the value of cleanliness and proper hygiene into children as they grow. Some families even have a certain kind of soap in a special container for the kids. Currently, because of H1N1 and fears of contagion, a tradition is developing of singing "Happy Birthday" while washing to ensure the appropriate number of seconds for a thoroughly sanitizing scrub. But a 25 year old man singing "Happy Birthday" in a public washroom while scrubbing his hands would seem extremely odd and immature. To that individual, the support for the value would have become equal to, if not greater than, the value itself.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is not denigrating the value of hand washing or of ritual cleansing to which the Pharisees referred. However, he is confronting and challenging the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who ask a question but are really making an accusation. Why don’t your disciples wash before eating? is really meant to say: your disciples are less holy than us; they ignore the traditions of our ancestors. For the Pharisees, the minutia of tradition equates with holiness before God. Jesus’ counter accuses the Pharisees that they have made their traditions superior of God’s commandment even to the point of circumventing the Law entirely. To them, the practice of "korban", giving money to the Temple, is more important than caring for one’s parents. The values of the Law, justice, charity and love, have been cast aside by greed, pride and arrogance, the result of a false use of tradition.
In the church today there are heated arguments over ritual and liturgical traditions, both old and newly established. Who can stand where? Who can say what? Who can wash the dishes? Who has priority of status over whom? The fundamental human need to worship God becomes all but forgotten in the piling on of dictates and practices that have more to do with control and power than with worship, justice, charity and love of God and neighbor. One can only wonder what the response of Jesus to such arguments would be today.
Cathy Anthony is on the staff of St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.