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Rules that Set Us Free: Reflecting on the Sunday Gospel

Rubens, Jesus and Pharisees

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Brother Silas Henderson, SDS - published on 08/28/15

Find the freedom that comes loving God and one another

Reflection for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

August 30, 2015

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?”

Jesus  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.”

—Mark 7:5-7

To read this Sunday’s Mass readings, click here.

We live in a world filled with rules and restrictions. The rules—especially the laws—that govern our day-to-day lives are ideally there for the order of society and the safety of others.

Our introduction to rules comes early. It’s hard to imagine a family that didn’t have “household rules” about bedtimes, curfews, meals and snacks, and television. Recent years have seen families establish rules about social networking and gaming. Later in life, we encounter rules in school and in the workplace. Although we might not think of them in this way, the policies and procedures that guide much of our academic and professional lives are, in fact, rules. The same holds true for the Church. Canon law and diocesan or parish policies set the course for the prayer and ministry of parishes and religious communities all over the world.

In the Gospel we hear proclaimed this Sunday, we enter a tense scene in which Jesus and his followers are being publicly criticized by certain religious leaders for disregarding rules of ritual washing.

Although something like ritual washings—including handwashing—might seem unimportant to us today, this act was an essential part of daily, religious observance for certain Jews at the time of Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes (two Jewish groups that prided themselves on their faithful religious observance) are attacking Jesus and his followers for not following the rules for purity that have been handed down to them.

These ritual acts of washing hands and feet go back to the Book of Exodus (cf. 30:19, 40:12) and were originally only intended for priests who were entering the Tent of Meeting. Centuries later, in the time of Jesus, some Jews who were not priests had begun to ritually wash before prayer and eating and had even extended the ritual to their cooking utensils and food. They believed that everyone should practice the same rituals and live by the same rules that they had adopted for themselves.

In a reflection on this passage, Sister Barbara Reid, O.P., a Scripture scholar, observes that Jesus, a poor tradesman from a poor village, would have understood that these kind of rules would have been nearly impossible for poor farmers and fishermen, especially given the scarcity of water and the frequent contact they would have had with dead fish and other things that would make them “ritually unclean.” Living by the strict rules of the Pharisees and scribes would have been a limited privilege for those who were well-off and living in cities.

In response, Jesus reminds his critics of what is truly important by challenging them to change their focus: it isn’t external realities that make us “unclean” or the observance of specific rules that make us “clean.” Instead, it is our intentions and the purity of our hearts that matter most to God: “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.”

Rules and faith traditions are incredibly important and they help us define our identity as Catholic-Christians. But, it can be very easy for us to become like the Pharisees and scribes and be too focused on the rules that govern so much of our lives. We can fixate on the details of traditions or teachings so much that we risk losing sight of what is most important: the Message of the Gospel. Rules and traditions—however important and venerable they may be—can never be an end in themselves. If they are good and worthwhile, they will always be leading us to a closer relationship with God and helping us live out our faith in ways that also lead others to God.

The Second Reading of Today’s Mass reminds us of what is essential if we are to call ourselves true disciples of Jesus: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:22, 27). The challenge is for us to open our minds and hearts to look beyond the details of the “letter of the law,” to find the freedom that comes from living according to the greatest commandments: love God and love one another.

How do I incorporate the teachings and traditions of the Church in my daily life? How do I pray about the Church’s teachings, especially those I find most challenging? Do the spiritual “rules” that govern my life make me feel limited or do they free me to serve God and others?

 Words of Wisdom: “Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults. Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others. Under no circumstances can this invitation be obscured! All of the virtues are at the service of this response to love.”—Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel

Silas Hendersonis a catechist, retreat director, and writer whose reflections and articles have appeared in numerous Catholic publications. He is also the author of From Season to Season: A Book of Saintly Wisdom and Moving Beyond Doubt, as well as the upcoming books Lights for a Waiting World: Celebrating Advent with the Saints (Abbey Press) and With An Undivided Heart: A Life of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (Ignatius Press). He currently serves as the managing editor of Abbey Press Publications and Deacon Digest Magazine. You can find him at and

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