A reflection on the readings for Sunday, August 29, 2021 — The Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today’s first reading depicts Moses introducing the laws he is about to teach the Israelites. The commandments God has given allow them to live and will give them a reputation for being wise and discerning (Deut 4:6). He states that other nations will note that Israel’s deity is closer to them than their own gods and that justice comes from their laws (Deut 4:7-8).

The Law (also called Torah) he dictates is wide-ranging and at times very detailed, describing things like what they are allowed to wear and eat. God, in giving his commandments, is not so different from parents who care for their children in all aspects of life, including things like what they can eat and what they should wear. Far from being something negative, for the Israelite community, these laws created a strong identity and a way to follow God even in mundane, daily matters, such as eating. The laws also promote justice, such as by forbidding partiality and corruption in courts (Deut 16:18-20), limiting the retribution that could be carried out in response to a crime (19:21), and protecting the poor and vulnerable (24:17).

By Jesus’ time, the Pharisees followed both this written Law and what is called the oral Law, the tradition Jews believe was passed on orally from Moses until it was eventually written down in the Talmud (after Jesus’ time). The oral Law is referred to in this passage as “the tradition of the elders” (v. 5). Not all Jews shared practices from the oral Law; for example, the Sadducees likely did not. Not only did interpretations of the Torah vary, beliefs about what even constituted Torah varied. When the Pharisees criticize Jesus and his disciples, it shows that they assumed Jesus and his followers shared their belief in hand washing (which is not from the written Torah).

Ritual purity is often misunderstood today. The hand washing described in this passage is not a matter of hygiene. Nor is ritual purity like sexual purity, as understood in Christian circles. Purity is often thought of as something you have until you lose it, but ritual purity is about following certain practices to be in a special state (ritually pure) in preparation for the sacred. One Old Testament scholar, Corrine Carvalho, has written that a contemporary example of ritual purity is abstaining from food for an hour before Mass.[1] It isn’t that Catholics think food is sinful, but we refrain from eating before Mass as a way to prepare ourselves, to set apart that time as we are about to take part in a sacred event.

In the Gospel reading, some Pharisees and scribes are with Jesus and his disciples and observe that some of them were not washing their hands before eating. This might be similar to noticing a group of people eating right before Mass. The Pharisees ask for an explanation, and Jesus doesn’t hold back his criticism and sarcasm. He calls them hypocrites and says: “How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition!” (v. 9). He then brings up a hypothetical issue in which someone’s vow conflicts with the commandment to honor their father and mother by providing for them in their old age. Jesus says that the Pharisees teach that one should prioritize the vow over the commandment: “you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things” (vv. 12-13). It quickly becomes apparent that Jesus, although he probably did follow the practice of hand washing, has different priorities concerning the commandments than the group of Pharisees with whom he is speaking.

The argument in this passage is not that hand washing, or its modern-day parallels, is necessarily wrong or “legalistic.” The issues that arise are priority—when the commandments conflict, which takes precedence? and our primary concern when it comes to following God’s commandments—is it about the misdeeds of others or about ourselves? Jesus clearly gives the most weight to internal matters, such as evil thoughts. He uses a vulgar description of digestion, in fact, to show just how plain it is that what defiles people comes from within rather than from without: “Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine? . . . But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles” (Matt 7:18-20).

It might seem that this could lead to self-centeredness, thinking only about oneself, but the list of sins at the end of the passage includes murder and theft—sins that begin inside a person that inflict evil upon another (Matt 7:21-22). This is different from something like hand washing, an external matter.

Misprioritization of commandments is hardly unique to the group of Pharisees Jesus encounters in the passage. Pope Francis speaks about this frequently. For example, he said early in his papacy, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” The rules he refers to are not necessarily bad in themselves, but they should not be given priority over more fundamental matters, such as loving one’s neighbor. As the reading from James states “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” (1:27).

The parallels between Jesus’ teaching in this passage and the things Catholics debate today are more similar than they might first appear. How often do people comment on parishioners wearing flip-flops at Mass or reciting a prayer with “you” vs. “thee/thou,” when we should be more concerned with the sinful thoughts and attitudes that reside within us, such as racism, greed, and callousness toward the poor and vulnerable! The prophets make it clear that external forms of worship are not just in vain—they actually anger God when people are sinning against him in interior matters (e.g., Isaiah 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6). We have the complete opposite meaning of these passages when markers of righteousness are external—in how things look or sound—rather than interior, meaning the disposition of the heart. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).


[1] Corrine Carvalho, Encountering Ancient Voices: A Guide to Reading the Old Testament (Anselm Academic, 2006) 95.

Image: Adobe Stock

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Angela Rasmussen

Angela Rasmussen has a Ph.D. in biblical studies. She teaches at Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America. She is married with three daughters.

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