Grace to you!
It could be a challenging task to clear the reading desk of a senior academic. You are not certain what is important and what isn’t; and though the table is very messy, for the academic, every little piece of paper on that desk is very important.
This scenario isn’t the case only with scholars; many of us have messy desks and untidy studies. We have gotten used to keeping things in a particular way that any attempt by a cleaner to place them in another place, perhaps more appropriate spot, is uncomfortable.
The above analogy, though simple, has huge implication on the way we look at things. Many times, we get used to a certain way of living and thinking, so much so we ignore the core, what really matters. Finding a routine is good, easier and less stressful. However, in many other cases, it could be a barrier to the Spirit.
Consider the legalism in many of our cultures, some of which may not necessarily be in line with our Christian faith. Coming from Africa where traditional culture is key, I know this first hand.
On a number of occasions, Jesus confronted legalism among his followers and his brethren. One case is when a Pharisee invited him for dinner. See the setting as documented in Scripture: “The Pharisee was amazed to see that he [Jesus] did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal. The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:38-41).
Harsh as this may sound; Jesus was hitting home his objection to hypocrisy and legalism; practices that ignore the essentials of true holiness under the guise of external observances.
The problem of the Pharisee wasn’t because of hygienic concerns. It was because of a broader rite of ritual impurities. The presumption was that because many of the things the hands touch could have been contaminated. Before one could eat, the person must be ritually washed even if the hand has been thoroughly washed.
Ritual washing is a religious ceremony and follows a strict format – pouring water out from a cup or jar, first twice over the right hand, and then twice over the left hand, making sure the unpurified hands do not touch the water used for the ritual before it is poured. While this is going, on a prayer/benediction is recited: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Thy commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.” Then the hands are dried with a towel before the meal is taken.
This ritual seems pleasant and the prayer is even beautiful. However, the belief that if the hands were not ritually washed, any food taken with them would contaminate the entire person was erroneous. It makes purity or holiness a matter of physical things rather than inner transformation and virtue.
Remember when Jesus stated that it is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes out of him (Matthew 15:11). It’s all in line with his teaching here.
May we always realize that external observances are useless without interior transformation – the practice of virtue. May we be inspired to keep, not simply the letters of the law, but the spirit, and thereby opening our hearts to the love of God and one another. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
Fr. Maurice Emelu, Ph.D.
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on Scriptural readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.