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The religion of the lips and of the heart

The first part of the gospel today, refers to a heated dispute between Jesus and some Pharisees and scribes, who came from Jerusalem. 

The fault that they reproach him of is that his followers do not respect the distinction between the sacred and the profane: “They were eating their meal with unclean hands” (v. 2) and this casual and provocative behaviour they can only have learned from their teacher.

 The charge does not apply to the neglect of hygiene standards, but the failure to perform the ritual act that needs to be done, after one has taken a bath, from any desire to keep his distance from the pagans who are rejected by God.

 The bible states that,before eating the sacrificed meat of the temple, the priest washes his hands and feet (Exodus 30:17-21).

However, some particularly devout groups of lay people, had also adopted the customs of the priests’ sacred banquets in their homes. Little by little, this practice had spread among the people, giving rise to the belief that the rule had been dictated by the Lord. 

  If these rules had been framed in the proper perspective, they would not have been a particularly negative factor. 

They were simply the expression of a need, thoroughly studied by modern psychological science, to resort to certain practices to exorcise phobias provoked by something different, from that which is considered a threat to their identity. 

They became dangerous because they were made equal to the word of God, leading to a distortion of the face of the Lord and our relationship with him and our neighbours. 

Jesus puts himself in the spiritual line of the prophets and pious masters of his time. 

He focusses on the renewal of life and takes a strict position against the religion being reduced to mere compliance to a legal code. 

He says that God is not interested in external purity, formalisms and solemn liturgies of the temple appearances. 

Like the prophets (Amos 5:21-27; Isaiah 1:11-20; 58:1-14), he unreservedly condemns this religious farce and, quoting Isaiah, says: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless for what they teach are only human rules” (vv. 6-7).

Jesus discribes those who deify these traditions as hypocrites, who pretend to be pious and neglect the single worship pleasing to God, love for the brothers and sisters. They honour the Lord in word only and with their lips, not with their hearts (Deuteronomy 6:5).

The evangelists would not have retained these harsh words of the Master if he had not understood the perennial relevance of the risk of introducing into the Church this hypocritical worship and the danger of equating the law of God with the traditions of humans. 

The strict observance of the clear and well defined rules gives the false security of having done one’s duty, makes one feel right in front of the Lord; it even leads to claim of being in credit with him.

 The religion of the heart can be practiced only by those who have reached a mature and adult faith, those who are free, sincere, open to the light of God and to the Spirit. 

 λ Father Fernando Armellini cmf
Claretian Publications