In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; the things that come out from within are what defile.” (Mk. 7:15) This saying was based on a common discussion among rabbis at the time.
At the time Jesus lived, rabbis used hypothetical questions as opportunities to teach their disciples about faithful religious practice. In this case, the hypothetical question was, “When does something that is ritually pure (kosher), become ritually unclean (unkosher)?” For example, does clean water being poured into a ritually impure vessel become unclean when it leaves the clean vessel or when it enters the unclean vessel? Individual rabbis proposed varying answers to this question.
Our religion has posed similar questions over the centuries. During the middle ages, theologians debated about how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. More recently, a popular question asks how late one can arrive at Mass and still be considered to have attended Mass.
Despite some similarity to our religion, the discussion in today’s Gospel reading might appear esoteric to us; it is, however, central to Hebrew religion. Ritual purity in Hebrew religion is a matter of remaining separate from the profane, gentile world. Consequently, one must always be aware of the point at which something or someone crosses the boundary between clean and unclean, faithfulness and idolatry, righteousness and injustice. The division between faithfulness and idolatry applies both to people and things.
Using one of the common teaching tools of the time, Jesus said that ritual impurity (or purity), derives not from what a person consumes, but from what resides in the person’s heart. There is a very pertinent, practical application of this principle for us today.
It is common, even popular, for people who consider themselves religious to look down upon those who do not meet their (ritual), standards. There are some Catholics who denigrate non-Catholics based solely on denominational affiliation. There are even some Catholics who look down upon fellow Catholics whom they consider not to be sufficiently Catholic or sufficiently orthodox or sufficiently moral. Jesus said that there is a judgment to be made in such cases, but it’s not the judgment that is obvious.
Jesus said that faithfulness, righteousness, and moral uprightness become corrupted (impure), at the point one considers oneself to be better than another. The division between purity and impurity, in the teaching of Jesus, occurs at the boundary of self-righteousness and at the point that one defiles oneself by denigrating another human being.
There is a clear dividing line between the holy and the profane; Jesus said that line excludes passing judgment on others. Many people would be tempted to agree with this statement in theory, but few are willing to put it into practice.
Take a moment to think about all the classes of people who are deemed to be deserving of exclusion from the mainstream of society. Immigrants are excluded from participation from many societies around the world, including ours. From time to time, even naturalized citizens are shunned by their fellow citizens. In some places, the wealthy exclude the poor from their company; in other places, the poor exclude the wealthy from their company. Almost everywhere, it’s popular to exclude people who do not share one’s political opinions. Further examples probably aren’t necessary in order to demonstrate how childish and selfish it is to engage in exclusivist behavior.
Self-righteousness and judgmentalism are not only indications of emotional immaturity, they are indications of a lack of faith. There is a clear distinction between holiness and inequity, but the distinction is not based on providing a benefit or detriment to any particular individual or population. The distinction between holiness and inequity is whether or not one is willing to refrain from reserving benefits or detriments to particular individuals or populations. This is true for the simple reason that only God can confer blessings or curses.
Obviously, individuals and societies require order, security, and peace in order to thrive. Order, security, and peace, however, do not result from religious, ethnic, economic, or social prejudice. These prejudices, like the vices Jesus mentions in the Gospel, are expressions of the human heart that separate one from God.
As I said, most people will agree with Jesus’ teaching as long as it remains in the abstract. Let’s look at what this teaching might mean if we put it into practice.
If you have raised children who are utter pagans, worshiping fictional characters in a video game, you are not profaned by being their parent; you are profaned, however, as soon as you pass judgment on them. If you have relatives, or friends, or neighbors who hold political views opposed to your own, you are not profaned by keeping company with them; you are profaned, however, as soon as you ostracize them because of their opinions. If someone you know has a lot more wealth or grown-up’s toys than you have, you are not profaned by having less; you are profaned, however, by being envious.
Holiness is a matter of remaining separate from what might profane us. Inequity, faithlessness, and impurity, however, are not conditions that we can catch from someone else; rather, they are conditions we catch from within ourselves.