The subject of discussion between the Pharisees and Jesus, the notion of clean and unclean, is unfamiliar. It has nothing to do with hygiene. It has to do with an understanding of God’s holiness, where everything is ordered and in its place. Dirt on food utensils is out of place, but dirt in a field forms part of the fertile soil. Everything has its place. The people who follow God’s Law live within this system which orders all of life. Only those who are clean may participate in public worship. This system served Israel well maintaining the people’s identity in the face of external pressures from the dominant pagan culture of the first century Roman Empire. Jesus by challenging the purity laws, threatens the protection and security provided by these Laws to Israel. The hostile reaction of the Pharisees is not unexpected.
Many might be tempted to see in this Gospel a simple criticism by Jesus of external observances of the Law, or of external observances of the faith, attendance at Mass, praying the Angelus or the rosary, attending novenas. Jesus’ challenge is much wider than this – it speaks to all who try to manage their relationship with God. A common example of such management are the oft quoted remarks, “I live a good life”; “I don’t need to pray, because I help others”; and “Avoiding offending others is enough.” The measure of goodness is not always clear. Jesus warns of what comes when we put ourselves front and centre – our hearts ultimately become sources of vice.
Jesus points to another way, a way already indicated by the Law. Moses speaks of how other nations will admire Israel – the greatest source of admiration is Israel’s closeness of God. This closeness is not a fixed possession but only becomes apparent when the people call to him. This potential closeness noted by Moses, comes to a new intensity with the arrival of Jesus, God made flesh, God among us. The letter of James speaks of this relationship in perhaps one of the most intimate ways in the whole Bible – the Word is planted in us. When we call to God, we discover that he is not merely close, but within us, speaking to us his Word which leads to salvation and life.
This Word invites us into a living relationship. The Word is not a possession to be hoarded and ignored. As we call out to God, the Word responds and invites a response from us in turn. Jesus wants us to walk the road to salvation with him. If we acknowledge our failings, he will speak words of consolation. If we lose our way, he will cry out to us and call us back. If we stumble, he will raise us up. In short, Jesus wants us to be close to him, so that he can be close to us. It is through prayer, that he comes close and invites us into an ever deeper living relationship with him.