Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly 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 human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
There is a basic law of aesthetic beauty that form should follow function. When form displaces function, the results can be pretty ugly. That’s a caveat at the core of this week’s gospel. The clerical nitpickers from the big city are out to give Jesus a hard time. And not surprisingly, to their much dramatized disgust, they find lots to criticize. But, like so many of their colleagues, they are infinitely out-matched when they tangle with Jesus.
Christ sees right through their trivial carping and calls them on it. And to expose their hypocrisy, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah: These people show honor to me with words…Their worship is worthless. They are all form and no function. They love themselves, not God. They haven’t the least intention of doing any good whatsoever; they only want to be seen to be doing good. Form that originated in the solemn function of worship had degenerated into self-promoting vanity. They are sacrilegiously playing a game of ritual one-upmanship to feed their all-consuming pride.
How easy it is for us to point fingers over the centuries. The self-righteous Pharisees and scribes make such satisfying targets. But scripture is with us for instruction not recreation. And before we cast a stone at hypocrites of old, a little spiritual inventory is in order.
What are our priorities? Are we majoring in the minors … more form than function? Are we worshiping God with our words and ignoring him with our lives? Are we so consumed with the stuff of this life, that we have lost our grip on the staff of eternal life? For most of us, for most of the time, the honest answer is … yes, we have. Eternity seems over our horizons, gratification is here and now. For the moment, we deceive ourselves to think that the easy form of an occasional, ritual prayer will suffice to keep the demanding function of a life in Christ temporarily at bay.
But as Jesus teaches in this gospel, the function of loving and serving God is primary. Its form is always a distant second. It is not the externals. It is the internals. Ritual does not keep us right with God. Righteousness does. And that righteousness comes from living actively and openly in harmony with the great commandment: to love God and neighbor with our whole heart and soul. It’s that simple; and that complicated. It is a life of a million decisions, both large and small, directed toward our main function, to align our purpose with those of our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. But, as in art, a life where form faithfully follows function is truly a thing of beauty.
God love you!