“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written … “in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts”. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” (Mk 7:6-7)
For many years now Church Tradition has suffered from neglect. Long before our present condition, in which we have erroneously built a chasm between pastoral care and church teaching in order to “catch up with the times”, many believers had already been abandoning the foundations of the faith. One sign of this was so many Catholics referring to Church teaching as “man-made laws”. This is simply tragic since God became man to give us these laws.
When we read the quotation above taken from the Gospel of Mark for this 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, it may seem that Jesus is belittling religious practice in favor of His commandments of love and mercy. Sadly, some lead catechists in the Church today would like us to think just that: that tradition and charity are competitors. However, Jesus’ primary purpose here is not to deride religious devotions but only to ensure that man’s worship is always inclined toward the love of God and neighbor. Hence, our genuflections, blessings, purifications, etc. must never be solely acts of outward piety leaving us satisfied with ourselves (and dissatisfied with others). Our religious rituals must be rather humble, inward gestures expressing reverential love to God.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus addresses the noble ritual of washing hands while St. Mark provides commentary on the custom of Jewish purification of ordinary household items. Such actions are not futile; they are admirable when performed as a reminder that all can be dedicated to God. However, keeping these observances, while neglecting the practice of mercy, leads to hypocrisy and vanity. Jesus thus teaches His disciples that real defilement comes through an impure soul, and in vicious desires which need purification through repentance. In other words, what brings about man’s sanctification (2 Tim 2:21) is his adherence to specific virtues (i.e. moral doctrine inspired by grace).
In order to expand on today’s reading of Sacred Scripture we place on our bulletin cover a detail of a work by the Italian late-Baroque painter, Luca Giordano, entitled Pilate Washing His Hands (1660). This is one of his more subdued works similar in tone and size to his Adoration of the Magi. Many of Giordano’s works were of classical myths while some of his Christian art anticipated the Rococo style shown in extravagant ceiling paintings (e.g. his Triumph of Judith).
In this image we see the hand of a soldier, a visual device moving our eye from the dejected face of Jesus to the wary washbowl of Pilate. Pilate looks at Jesus as if to impress upon Him his innocence in Jesus’ condemnation and conviction. Jesus does not look at the “washing of hands” because he goes to his death not under human authority, but in obedience to his Father in heaven. For our purpose we know that the self-purification of Pilate was no substitute to the mercy Pilate refused to extend to Jesus – unjustly condemned. No amount of hand washing can ever amend the slaying of God. Sacred Scripture and Tradition teach us that only the mercy of God can accomplish that (2 Thes 2:15).
-Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services