Mk 7:1-23 Neat and Freakish!
When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands… Jesus responded, “You disregard God’s commandments but cling to human tradition…From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Does this sound familiar? Is this not happening today?
Every year, I taught a bunch of high school boys a very long course on etiquette. It was mandatory, just like religion, but it never replaced religion. God forbid that etiquette would ever replace God’s commandments!
Soon, however, I began to realize that I needed to teach them at an earlier age. Bad habits, once fully grown, are hard to break. And these kids were fully immersed in all sorts of bad habits. They had either been told that it didn’t really matter or the silence had taught them that it really didn’t matter. What mattered was always something “greater” or something “else” or something “obvious”.
So, I decided to teach the same course to my middle school students. They were shocked to hear when and how you should take a drink of water and how you should walk across a row (to get to your seat) in a movie theatre. But what really shocked them was how you should speak to a woman and greet a woman.
But why is any of this important? Answer: In order to be a saint, you must first be a human being. There is an old saying in seminary: “First the man, then the saint.”
Most people would be shocked at how much “human formation” is taught in a seminary; that is, instruction on how to cut your finger and toe nails; how to polish your shoes; how to sew; how to iron; how to wash and fold your clothes; how to shave and groom yourself; how to make your bed; how often you should shower and change your clothes; how to comb your hair; shake someone’s hand; etc…
It’s obvious why these things need to be taught. Just look around!
Recently, I met a woman who was shocked that on her first date with her boyfriend he was flossing his teeth right in front of her, at the dinner table, in the restaurant! How neat and freakish!
Over the years, all forms of etiquette have deteriorated, except the one’s that keep us “physically” healthy. Americans use more hand sanitizer than any other nation in the world. Yet, we continue to be a nation that uses more medication than any other nation in the world. We strive to be the premier advocate for women’s rights around the world, yet we continue to lead the world in the production of hardcore and violent pornography. We are a peace loving nation, giving billions of dollars in aid, but we continue to fight more wars than any other nation in the world.
We are not neat-freaks. We are very neat and very freakish. It is not unheard of to hear of a very polite and courteous teen who is sexting. Or of a young gentleman who insists on using a condom with his girlfriend while insisting on his right to not let her know that he has HIV. How neat and freakish!
Over the past 40 years, the social engineers (the real freaks of society) have worked hard to dismantle every single “barrier” with regards to female and male relationships; student and teacher relationships; adult and child relationships; etc. But what they have really been highly successful in doing is removing any form of respect among females and males; students and teachers, adults and children.
And while they have worked hard in dismantling all barriers (respect) among people, they have kept building a higher wall with regards to God and man; the body and the soul; faith and culture; morals and civility.
We thought we had outgrown the need our ancestors had in drawing lines. Now and again, we are reminded of why they were so wise! We know why. We just hate giving any sort of credit to the dead. We hate admitting that a blurry or erased line leads to all sorts of harm, confusion, neglect, abuse, criminal behavior, liability and lawsuits. Or, as the Lord would so succinctly say: sin and death.
In order to point out something, sometimes you need to let it stand out. The Lord was not telling his disciples that they should not bathe or cleanse before meals, or that these types of human traditions are not important. He was teaching his opponents that they should not replace God’s Commandments with human traditions. Exterior beauty should not replace interior beauty. Exterior cleanliness should not replace interior cleanliness. Looking good should not replace being good. It's not that the exterior is not important; it's that the exterior should mirror the interior. We should be just as good as we appear to be.
Out of respect for others, it is important, when taking your seat in a movie theater, to walk across the row with the front of your body facing the people; it is a sign of respect for your neighbor as well as for yourself. It is important to wash your hands before meals. But it is just as important to pray before meals. In this way, not only will the meal be more beneficial, it will also be less superficial.
And this is the point: We can either continue to live life solely in a highly superficial way or we can decide to live it in a highly interior and radical way as well. Anyone can say, “Who cares about all this formality?” when they haven’t learned any of this formality. But if they were humble, they would say, “Will you teach me?” Then, not only will they know that someone cared, they will also know some wisdom as well.
If we always find an easy excuse for our kids by saying, “They are only kids!”, then why do we find it so hard to come up with an easy excuse when they grow up and ask, “Why didn’t you help me?”
Eating a meal with unclean hands is bad; just as bad as using your clean hands with an unclean heart. As a society today, we suffer just as much from the former, as we do from the later. The later, however, makes most of the news. The solution is not to ignore one or the other, but to work on both and join them together. First the man, then the saint. Let's put the same time, effort and dedication in being good as we do in looking good.
The Lord loves us just the way we are, but He would love to raise us higher than where we are. He would love to lift up our body, blood, soul and divinity, to where He is. That’s when we will no longer be neat and freakish, but both neat and holy.