Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17
In the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets, a popular New York City author of romance novels named Marvin Udall, played so well by actor Jack Nicholson, has an obsession with cleanliness, with a compulsive daily hand washing ritual. His medicine cabinet is jam-packed with bars of soap. During his daily hand-washing, he goes through several bars of soap, and then rinses his hands in blistering hot water. He is now clean. He touches no one, and no one touches him.
There’s something else about Mr. Udall. He takes pleasure in insulting everyone with whom he comes in contact. What’s more, he is the worst of listeners. He tunes out to anyone or anything that may contaminate his world. From his typewriter, Mr. Udall writes passionately about love. Yet sadly, from his heart he spews garbage. A powerful parable, this movie.
This parable, however, has been told before – by Jesus. Some Pharisees, who carefully, even obsessively, observed the purification rituals of washing of hands and avoiding ritually unclean foods, criticized the disciples of Jesus. Could Jesus not see that there were violating traditions of cleanliness mandated by the Torah? The purpose of these rituals, spelled out in the Book of Leviticus, was to instill an awareness of God’s holiness and love for his people. Yet sadly, from their hearts, these Pharisees spewed legalism and barriers to fellowship with God.
Jesus knew that even the best intentions can become corrupted. Sometimes rituals can become substitutes for faithfulness to God while our hearts remain filthy by sin. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile,” Jesus declares. To whom does he speak? He speaks to the Pharisees, to Mr. Udall, but most of all, to us.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.