Twenty-second Sunday Ordinary Time - 2006 B
Jesus and the Pharisees seem to have polar opposite understandings of what it means to be truly holy. While the Pharisees seem to be obsessed with the washing of hands, Jesus and his disciples seem much more intent on getting their hands dirty. Jesus seems less concerned about clean hands, and more concerned about clean hearts. I can imagine the Pharisees wearing fancy cuff links on their sleeves, while Jesus roles up his sleeves to sink his hands into the messiness of human life. While the Pharisees are concerned mostly with exterior appearances, and practices of ritual purity, Jesus is concerned with interior motivations, and the rituals of real human relationships. Jesus challenges us to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty as we practice our religion and strive for holiness. Jesus turns everything upside-down and inside-out. For Jesus and his followers, holiness is not about staying clean, true holiness is about getting dirty.
Jesus certainly does not hesitate to get his hands dirty, even if it renders him “unclean” by the religious elite. In fact, doing those things that make them ritually “unclean” seems to be the deepest desire of Jesus and his followers.
They become unclean by:
-touching and healing lepers who have been cast out
-by speaking to women in public and calling them to leadership
-by dining with tax collectors and sinners in their homes
-by entering Gentile territory and preaching the Good News to all of God’s children.
All of these daily activities of Jesus render him unclean by the rigidly pious religious elite and leaders of his faith. But for Jesus, leading others to faith means leading them into the wonderful messiness of human life and love. For Jesus, true religion is all about breaking open hearts and taking the risk of having your heart broken. Religion is about becoming passionate and vulnerable in the face of human pain and need. Religion is about building community and working for justice. It’s about family and friendship, and as the letter of James tells us, it’s about “caring for orphans and widows in their affliction.” Religion, as James says, is about being “doers of the word, not hearers only.” So, Jesus and his disciples get their hands dirty, so dirty in fact, that no amount of scrubbing and washing could get them clean.
I spent some vacation time this summer with my young nieces and nephews who are constantly being reminded by their parents to wash their hands before coming to the dinner table. The constant refrain this summer was: “Did you wash your hands? Are your hands clean?” Now, for good hygiene purposes this washing of hands before dinner is a good habit to cultivate. But I sometimes imagine that when we all arrive at the heavenly banquet, God will ask us, not “are your hands clean enough to sit at this table?” . . . but rather, “Are your hands dirty enough?” Did you spend your lifetime rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty with Jesus in the hard work of human loving, or did you choose to follow the Pharisees, clinging to your fears and false securities?
For many of us on an academic calendar, Labor Day is more like New Year’s Day. It’s a time to set goals and make resolutions. We have a whole new year ahead of us to become doers of the Word, to role up our sleeves and get our hands dirty with Jesus. We each do this in different ways:
-Some of us change diapers and help our kids with math homework.
-Some of us coach the neighborhood soccer team or join the parish council.
-Some or us, in our old age and infirmity, will simply pray for the poor, the suffering and the lonely.
-Some of us will volunteer at the Shattuck Shelter, build a home with Habitat for Humanity or even help with the reconstruction of New Orleans.
-Some will serve as tutors in the inner city or work with kids caught up in gang violence.
-And maybe, just maybe, this is the year that some will decide to become a priest or a religious sister/brother or maybe even join the Jesuits!
Maybe this is the year we’ll all become doers of the word and not only hearers of the Word.
Perhaps at the beginning of this new year, we should all ask ourselves: Are we content with going through the motions and routines of our faith, or are we ready to take some risks and get our hands dirty in the rituals of real human relationships? Jesus tells the Pharisees that their hearts are “far from God” and that they “disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” What are the things we cling to that keep our hearts far from God and God’s people?
Can we let go of our obsessive compulsions, our fears and false securities? Perhaps today we should all ask ourselves: In the practice of our faith, are we more concerned about clean hands or clean hearts?