Opening the Word: Defiled heart, defiled hands

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Timothy P O'MalleyJesus’ disciples eat with defiled hands.

This is a problem not just for those of us still living in COVID-tide.

The disciples come into the marketplace, sharing food with anyone who is there. They don’t wash their hands, separating themselves from the hoi polloi.

But the Pharisees and the scribes will have none of that. They want the disciples to be pure, apart from everyone else.

They are worried more about purity than inviting the hoi polloi into the kingdom.

This, according to Jesus, is disregarding God’s commandment.

August 29 – Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Dt 4:1-2, 6-8
Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5
Jas 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

What is that commandment?

Let us remember that the people of Israel are to keep the whole Law. They are to add nothing to the Law, as the Pharisees and scribes seem to have done.

But more importantly, they are to keep the whole Law. The Law is not just regulations or rules governing behavior. To keep the Law is to be a witness to all the nations of God’s saving mercy to Israel.

Keeping the Law would therefore require an openness to all those in the marketplace, inviting them into the kingdom. Setting oneself apart from the hoi polloi is therefore against the Law.

Jesus teaches something new about defilement. It’s not about what we eat. What we drink. Whether we wash our hands or not.

It’s about purity of heart.

A heart entirely open to the will of God, to announcing the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth.

Isn’t this what St. James is talking about in the second reading for this Sunday?

Yes, the word of God dwells in us, the baptized sons and daughters of the living God.

If that word dwells in us, then we must carry out that word. We must be doers of the word, not only hearers.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27).

Purity of heart is therefore not just an interior or individual affair. Purity of heart is openness to the brother and sister in need.

The orphan who has no one to care for him.

The widow who has no one who loves her.

This is how we keep ourselves unstained before God.

This is a dose of bitter wisdom that we need to hear right now.

The United States right now — on both the left and the right — seems to be driven by a terrifying view of individual liberty.

Catholics have proclaimed, way too frequently, “my body, my rights.”

“My body, no reason to get a vaccine.”

“My body, who cares about the neighbor who is sick? My family is fine.”

“My body, if there’s some conservative fool who isn’t vaccinated, that’s their problem and not mine. Let it be a Darwin test.”

Here comes James, preaching to us.

Here comes Jesus, proclaiming to us.

This is not purity of heart. This is not the Gospel.

Your body is not yours alone. It’s not about your individual practices of purity, your personal liberty against the hoi polloi.

Salvation through Jesus is different.

It’s the body given over for the life of the world.

For the neighbor.

It’s a bodily imitation of Christ who never met a human being with who he did not enter a relationship.

The widow. The orphan. The sick. The Samaritan.

If we are to follow Jesus, let us give up our purity tests. And enter a loving relationship with the hoi polloi.

Love alone, dear friends, is what makes us pure.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.