Gospel:  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


Ways to Enter the Sacred Meal


How do you prepare for a special dinner? What rituals or habits do you have to ready your mind and heart for that unique meal?


Meal time is social time. A special dinner can be as simple as wine and cheese, or as extravagant as a multi-course night in a fine restaurant. But, don't we remember not the food and drink, but the company we keep? Don't companions make a meal memorable?


We can eat with family and friends. But, what would we do to prepare to eat a meal with God? This simple question cut to the heart of one's relationship with God. Do we prepare by removing ourselves from the dirt of the world? Or do we prepare ourselves by removing the dirt of the heart? This question was the battleground over which Jesus and the Pharisees fought.


Jesus had words with the Pharisees. But their debate covered more ground than a mere point over ritual washings. At the heart of the debate lie a clash between two different spiritual visions: one from the city, the other from the countryside. And in that clash, a fight erupted over spiritual authority.


Literal Translation


1 (They) gathered together (before) HIM, the Pharisees and some of the scribes, having come from Jerusalem, 2 having seen some of his disciples eat bread (with) common hands, this is unwashed. [3 Holding to the tradition of the elders, the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash (their) hands with the fist. 4 They do not eat (coming) from the marketplace unless they wash. There are many other (traditional rituals) which they received to adhere to: the washing of cups, pots, and copper kettles.] 5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked HIM, "Why do your disciples not walk (in the way) of the elders, but eat bread with common hands?"


7:2 "some of his disciples ate bread (with) common hands, this is unwashed" "common hands" meant as a commoner would. Here "commoner" meant "Gentile." The Pharisees and scribes saw Jesus' followers eat like non-Jews, for they did not prepare for the meal with ritual washings.


7:3-4 These verses form an aside Mark placed in the narrative to explain Jewish customs to Gentile-Christians.


7:3 "with the fist" is an obscure reference. Scholars are unsure what this phrase means.


7:4 "They do not eat (coming) from the marketplace unless they wash." The verb "wash' is literally "bathe." But what do they bathe themselves or the produce they purchased? While the grammar indicates the person (the Jews washed after a day in the market), the context of the tradition indicates the produce purchased.


7:5 "eat bread with common hands" See the note on 7:2 for the use of the phrase "common hands."


As a religious and political group, the Pharisee party taught that living the Law would bring God's kingdom closer to reality. To help them live out the Law, the Pharisees created other laws, rules, and guidelines to keep people from breaking the Law. Jews call this practice "building a fence around the Law." [3-4]


But, why did the Jews practice all these washings? These rituals were points of transition between the secular world and the sacred, between the time of work and the time of worship. Meal time celebrated community in the presence of God. Families and friends gathered together to share stories, news of the day, and gossip. But they always gathered as God's people; prayer became an integral part of the meal.


These washings became more important as Judaism moved from an agrarian religion to an urban (even ghetto) phenomenon. With the decline of Judea and the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., the people migrated to different parts of the world. From India to the head waters of the Nile, Jews gathered to remain a community in the cities. (For example, at the time of Jesus, Jews accounted for one third of the largest city in the Roman Empire, Alexandria in Egypt.) The Diaspora dwelled in the cities of other nations, but remained distinctly Jewish.


How, then, would Jews keep their faith in the midst of a foreign culture? Heighten the differences. Hence, practices like washings reminded Jews of their heritage, their current faith, and the reason they were not like other peoples. Their practices also reminded the host culture Jews were different!


The party of the Pharisees were quickly becoming the urban force in Judaism. And their vision of a city-based Judaism gained influence. Jesus, however, represented a rural vision of Judaism. Rules and rituals were secondary to survival. The carpenter and his fishermen followers from Galilee did not have the luxury of time to wash hands or utensils. No, the Nazarene had a far greater vision in mind than that of ritual.


6 But HE said to them, "Isaiah spoke about you hypocrites in the right way, as it has been written,


The people revere me with their lips,
but their heart holds me off far away;
7 they worship me in vain,
teaching the rules of men as (God's) teaching.


8 Having abandoned God's Law, you hold (onto) the traditions of men."


7:8 "Having abandoned God's Law" "Law" is literally "command." The singular "command" referred to everything God proscribed. God's command is the Torah, his Law.


In their question, the Pharisees believed they had the common person on their side. Even in the hamlets, Jews practiced these washings. When they asked the question, they thought they could paint Jesus as a renegade unfit for spiritual leadership. Their hearts told them they could shame Jesus, so the people would reject him.


But Jesus responded with a question of his own. His inquiry was rhetorical, however, for it was followed with a quote from Isaiah about their infidelity. Jesus claimed the Pharisees talked the talk, but did not walk the walk. He concluded with a harsh rebuke. The Pharisees and their scribes lost their spiritual authority because they abandoned the spirit of the Law in a fight over minutia.


Jesus undercut the spiritual vision of the Pharisees in two ways. First, Jesus taught nothing people do can hasten the coming of God's kingdom; the kingdom's coming was God's prerogative. No ritual done for its own sake can bring one closer to God. Second, a relationship with God was more important than scrupulous obedience to his Law; the good of God's creation (i.e., his people) was more important than the good of the Law.


14 Having called out to the crowd again, HE said to them, "Everyone hear me and understand. 15 (There is) nothing outside a man going into him that is able to make him common.


21 For, from inside the hearts of men journey the reasons (for their) evil: sexual vices, theft, murder, 22 adultery, covetousness, malicious acts, deceit, debauchery, an envious eye, slander, arrogance, (moral and spiritual) foolishness. 23 All these evils journey out from inside and make man common."


7:22 "covetousness" referred to property and lust (violations of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments). "an envious eye" is literally "an evil eye." "(moral and spiritual) foolishness" is spiritual immaturity that excuses or rationalizes immoral acts.


Jesus finished the passage with a teaching on morality. He points to the heart as the source of morality, not the stomach [14-15,21-23]. How did he make this shift from ritual washings to the entire notion of kosher practices? The missing verses give us the key. In Mark 7:9-13, Jesus rejected the notion of "korban," a loophole that allowed the believer to make a financial offering to the Temple at the cost of financial support for elderly parents; the fourth commandment nullified their ruling. In this way, Jesus challenged the Scriptural interpretations of the Pharisees. It also allowed him to declare all foods gifts from God (7:16-20). So, Jesus taught breaking kosher did not make a Jew like the Gentile (i.e., "common). Living at a higher moral standard made the believer distinct, different. The core of that higher morality, then, began in the mind and heart.


Catechism Theme: All Gather Together (for Mass) (CCC 1348)


It is ironic that Christians prepare for a community meal, just as their Jewish counterparts did in the time of Jesus. Human beings need a transition from the secular to the sacred. In fact, such rituals as these transition moments define the purpose of the community.


Judaism had washing rituals to show it was separated from the dominate culture. Christianity has penitential rites in liturgy to define itself as a community of saved sinners. This is the first moment of active worship where all have a place at the table.


During worship, Christ is at the head, represented by the bishop or priest (who acts in persona Christi capitis). Others have ministries of welcome, reading, bring forth the gifts, and distributing communion. But the entire congregation forms Christ's Body. But to become his Body, each member must first be reconciled to their Master and each other.


How does the penitential rite during Mass help you to celebrate and worship?


The city and the country. Two different lifestyles. Two different religious outlooks. Two different emphases on the meaning of community. Should preparation before the meal reflect the separation of God's Chosen from the nations? Or, should it reflect separation of the saved from their sin?


Early in the Common Era, both Judaism and Christianity developed along similar paths. Both grew in the city. Both used the links between cities to maintain communications. But the similarities ended there. As the movement of the Messiah, Christianity strove to celebrate freedom from sin, even if the sin was fresh and inconsequential.


Remember when we prepare to worship at the sacred meal, we separate not from others but from sin for others.


How do you prepare for Sunday? Try a nightly Examination of Conscience, a review of the day and a prayer for forgiveness. Over the next several days, see if that prayer does not heighten your thirst for Sunday worship.