During the reign of the ancient Roman Empire, Jews were exempt from the obligation to practice the state religion of Rome. Despite the exemption, Jews were very familiar with Roman religion. Jesus and his fellow Galileans, for example, would have seen Roman pagan worship performed in the cities where they lived and traveled.
Jews judged Roman state religion to be little more than superstition; this was due to two reasons. The first, and obvious, reason was the fact that Roman state religion worshiped a large and constantly changing pantheon of gods and goddesses. The Jews of the Late Second Temple period considered it both faithless and comical to divide the world into multiple separate fiefdoms ruled by multiple gods.
The second reason that Jews judged Roman state religion to be mere superstition was somewhat more subtle than the first. For the Romans, religion was a strictly pragmatic matter. They offered sacrifices and prayers to the gods in order to avoid calamity or obtain a favorable outcome to a particular activity. The goal of the rituals of Roman state religion was not to worship the gods but to appease them. If, for example, someone received a bad omen before entering a business contract or going on a journey, it was permissible and encouraged to repeat the divining ritual as many times as was necessary to receive a good omen. There was no thought given to discerning and following the will of the gods; the purpose of Roman religious rituals was to remove any obstacles to an individual following her or his own will. The religious rituals existed not to serve the gods and goddesses but to serve the self-interests of Roman citizens.
The Romans considered themselves to be the most pious and devout nation that ever existed. They considered this to be true based on the long history of the Roman Empire and the Empire’s success at conquering its neighbors and enemies. They reasoned that the enduring power of the Roman Empire derived from the diligent and effective appeasement of the many gods and goddesses who might otherwise interfere with the Empire’s plans for hegemony. This notion, of course, seemed ridiculous to devout Jews. Surprisingly, Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem of practicing religion in the same superstitious way that the Romans practiced religion.
The group of scribes and Pharisees which came to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading were completely aware that his disciples’ lax practice of the Jewish purity laws was perfectly acceptable behavior. Rural Jews had neither the time nor resources necessary for the stringent practices of urban Pharisaism. Consequently, rural rabbis approved a more relaxed religious practice that was appropriate to rural life. The urban Pharisees who mocked Jesus and his disciples did so only on the basis of their belief that their stringent ritualism was more pleasing to God because it was more rigorous than other practices. Jesus condemned this group of Pharisees because their religious practices were not directed to praise of God but to earning favorable treatment from God (in the way that pagan Roman religion tried to assure its adherents success in all their endeavors).
After confronting the scribes and Pharisees about their self-serving behavior, Jesus explained to the crowds the nature of authentic devotion to God. He said, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within, and they defile.” (Mk. 7:15-16)
According to Jesus, the difference between superstition and devotion is seen in one’s behavior. Superstition gives rise to all manner of evil; Jesus listed a few examples. Theft, murder, deceit, arrogance, and the like are reprehensible acts. Everyone agrees that these attitudes and actions have no valid place in the lives of other people. Jesus said that rather than judge others, his disciples should consider those behaviors to have no valid place in their own lives.
Everyone around you can see clearly whom (or what) you worship. It is easily perceptible in your behavior whether you are superstitious or devout. Jesus gave his disciples instruction about how to discern in their own lives what other people already see. Evil, arrogance, and folly are the consequences of superstition. Mercy, charity, and forgiveness, on the other hand, come from the heart of the person who loves God. The result of devotion to God is the willingness to critique one’s own behavior and leave others to do the same for themselves.