On Handwashing, Marketplaces, and The Fear of Evil.

Just a brief note to convey a thought I had about today’s Gospel reading from Mark, Chapter 7:

“When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem
gathered around Jesus,
they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals
with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.
For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews,
do not eat without carefully washing their hands,
keeping the tradition of the elders.
And on coming from the marketplace 
they do not eat without purifying themselves. 
And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed,
the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. —
So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him,
“Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders
but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
He responded,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.

You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

He summoned the crowd again and said to them,
“Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.

“From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.””

The Pharisees are constantly obsessing over preserving themselves from the evil influences outside of them. Jesus preaches a freedom from this fear because he has given us the radical freedom to be interiorly transformed by His Spirit and not subject to the vicissitudes of our corrupt nature. Holiness isn’t afraid of the marketplace. How much are we, as Christians and as The Church, living in this freedom that he gives us when we engage the secular culture? Or are we, like the Pharisees, lacking in confidence and more concerned about protecting ourselves from the  exterior evil than we are with making sure that we ourselves are a source of purity for the world outside the “walls” of our Church communities?

The Jews were accustomed to the traditions that had been passed down to them from the Old Law that was given by Moses. The purpose of that law was to keep the contagion of the pagan world out of the people. The Law was protection. Protection from the sinful world outside and its influences. I was struck by the way that St. Mark, a man of few words, describes the way that the Jews would go about trying to protect themselves from the world. He gives the particular example of Jews going out to the marketplace and, upon returning home, making sure to purify themselves ritually from any uncleanness they might have come into contact with there. This is paradigmatic of the Old Covenant as a whole. The purpose was always to preserve the purity of the chosen people in an exclusive way. Traditions such as this one were built up out of a very real and very reasonable fear (born out of repeated bad experience!) of the seductive power of the real evil in the world. What can man, with his fallen nature, do against such a powerful force?

Jesus turns the tables on this expectation by undercutting the tradition of hand washing. He is communicating that He is creating a new covenant that will carry with it a whole new set of expectations. Jesus gives the example for this new arrangement in His own person when he goes deliberately into strongholds of pagan culture and spends his time with sinners. Jesus is the source of purity and is not in any danger of being corrupted. He can go to places that the Jews would have been taught to avoid (for good reason) without the fear of being tainted by the influence of evil. In turn, He repeatedly promises to send the Holy Spirit to give those who follow him this same ability.

No longer do we have to obsess over protecting ourselves from an evil that lives outside of us. The Jews had not received the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and so their fear of evil was certainly reasonable and justified. Jesus has defeated that evil and given us the power to overcome it. No longer do we wash our hands when we come home from the marketplace in order to purify ourselves. Rather, Jesus is calling us to be, in Him, a fount of purity for the cleansing of the secular marketplace. He wants us to imitate him and walk fearlessly into places (both physically and culturally) that contain evil influences with total confidence in His power to overcome. Judaism is inherently defensive in its posture to the rest of the world. Christianity puts holiness on offense. Christ wants to take over culture and he wants us to be the agents of this conquest.

I’m not saying that don’t have to know ourselves and be careful about near occasions of sin. What I am saying is that I think Jesus is challenging us to consider what our fundamental posture is to the world outside of ourselves: Is it defensive and fearful? Or is it confident and on the offense for the Kingdom? The Gates of Hell will not prevail against us, He told us (Matt 16). That’s an offensive statement. It means that the enemy will not be able to withstand our attack, not that we’ll be able to endure his (as most people strangely interpret that passage). The Church is an army on the march, not a fortified castle!

Questions we can ask ourselves: When I encounter the secular culture, do I try to see what is good in it and think about how that might be used to further the kingdom? Or am I so terrified by how scary the pagan world outside is that I think about walling myself up against it? What about with people? Do I see everyone around me as a potentially great saint; someone God has called and absolutely can be transformed by him? Or do I think of some people (or myself) as basically hopeless causes that not even God can transform? Do I consider how blasphemous and offensive to Our Lord it is to think of anyone or anything as unredeemable? The only times when Jesus seems genuinely offended in the Gospels is when people fail to have confidence in His power to do literally anything for them.

Have confidence when you’re in the Public Square! The very source of goodness itself lives in your heart!

-JWH

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