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.’

Mark 7.1–23

The meaning of today’s gospel reading seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Jesus is in favour of an inner, spiritual type of religion. Outward ceremonies, rituals, all that kind of stuff are primitive, superstitious, legalistic, things to be rejected.

But we should be very careful about reading this passage in this way. In the West we like to think of ourselves as sophisticated, as liberated from superstition and mumbo-jumbo. It is far too easy to say ‘how petty, to reduce faith, spirituality, whatever, to the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.’ There can even be an incipient anti-semitism in our pouring scorn on expressions of religious belief which are concerned with ritual, or with ceremonial purity. Jesus, we should always remind ourselves, lived, died, and was raised to life as a thoroughly Jewish person. The debate between Jesus and the Pharisees which w read here was not a debate about whether or not to be Jewish, but how to be Jewish.

We aren’t helped, it has to be said, by the way the Lectionary, the official list of readings in the Church of England, omits some very important verses from this reading in order to make it a bit shorter. In the bit which is left out, Jesus criticises the Pharisees and the Scribes, not because they are too scrupulous in obeying the minutiae of the commandments of God’s law, but because they had invented rules which nullified the law. The Lord Jesus highlights one particular example.

The law given to Moses on Mount Sinai, written on tablets of stone by God’s own finger, commanded the Israelites to honour their father and mother that their days might be long in the land the Lord God was giving them, and everyone acknowledged that part of this was that children had financial obligations to their parents, particularly to care for them in their old age. Around this law however, an elaborate system of legal exclusions was developed. You could avoid your obligations to your parents if you declared what you owed as a gift to God.

The best example I can think of is if I were to ask Ludovic to help us with the washing up, but Ludovic, being canny, replying, ‘terribly sorry, I’m just off to do some praying, and my duty to serve God outweighs my duty to help you’. You get the idea. Here is a loophole which means I can place my religious duties before my familial duties, ignoring, of course, the fact that God has commanded certain familial duties, so it is impossible to draw the distinction.

So when the Lord Jesus says: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines”, he isn’t criticising the Law; neither does he criticise being very careful about how the law is obeyed; he isn’t even critical about ritual purity rules. He does criticise the way in which we so often try to find loopholes, in which we can claim to obey God whilst being far from God in our hearts. Perhaps I do this in Lent, when I say to myself ‘well… you know… the Sundays of Lent aren’t really part of the Lenten fast, so I can eat lots of chocolate, so long as I do it on Sunday.’ It is a lovely loophole, but it betrays the fact that I haven’t really understood the purpose of fasting during Lent? Perhaps I do this when I ignore the poor stranger, begging on the street who needs my help because I have already given money to charity?

Whenever we do this we forget that the real purpose of the Law was not to make life miserable, or intolerable, or difficult, but to focus our hearts on the one from whom all goodness, all holiness, all beauty flows, in communion with whom is found the fulness of life. Outward obedience to religious laws pointed to the need for us to turn to God in our hearts. At no point did Jesus dismiss the importance of outward religious ritual, he worshipped in the temple, he kept the rules around kosher food. Our Lord did say, however, that outer purity must spring from inner purity, and when it does, ritual, traditions, far from stifling true faith, become their natural expression, become a path for deepening faith, become life giving.

So may we pay closer attention to our hearts than we do to the religious practices of others. May we seek to love God and trust God and obey God in the stillness of hearts, and from the life of God which grows there, may our outward actions, our charity, our religious rituals, give glory to Almighty God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.