Have you ever seen a surgical team scrub up before an operation? It puts mere handwashing to shame! It’s a good thing, of course, that the team puts so much effort in, and there’s an excellent reason for its rigid cleansing requirements.
Cleansing has also always been important in religious traditions, both for its literal use (becoming clean, avoiding disease) and for the less-literal connections to being clean before God. In fact, some sort of ritual cleansing appears in nearly every world religion.
Rituals are an essential part of religion. They allow the people of God to participate in community life united both historically and geographically—over time and space—in a manner designed to uphold orthodoxy, draw diverse members together, and mark important moments in the life of the Church. But rituals are designed by humans, and therefore can take on a life of their own, to the point where the ritual becomes more important than the reason and goals behind it.
That’s what is happening in today’s Gospel reading: the Pharisee was so caught up in the cleansing ritual that he lost the point of it. Washing one’s hands before eating was a religious obligation, imposed upon people in the name of purity, and ordered by God’s law. And yet even though Jesus accepts the Pharisee’s invitation to dine with him, Jesus doesn’t observe this religious norm.
It must have seemed very odd—and, in fact, a breach of respect. The Pharisee probably thought he was being respectful of Jesus by inviting him in, and Jesus immediately violates the common practice as well as the law to which the Pharisee has dedicated his life.
Jesus’ response is anything but reassuring. “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.”
Observing laws and rituals literally allows us to lose sight of the meaning behind them. Jesus didn’t say it was bad to observe the cleansing ritual; what he said was that the cleansing had to be deeper, had to penetrate words and thoughts and actions. The Pharisee only looked at the letter of the law—so he wasn’t able to perceive the spirit of the law, the point of having the law in the first place.
As far back as Leviticus, we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. The meaning is reasonably clear, yet Luke tells us that out of that law arose a discussion to determine precisely who our neighbors are—and, perhaps more importantly, to establish who isn’t included as a neighbor. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “The letter kills, the spirit gives life” (2 Co 3, 6). In the Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus criticizes those who observe the letter of the law but transgress the spirit (Mt 5, 20).
Washing the outside of the cup while leaving the inside dirty isn’t what we’re called to do. It’s not enough to follow the letter of the law; it’s in observing and internalizing and honoring the spirit of the law that we become pure, that we become new people in Christ. Which means that it has to be about love of other people: it’s in the practice of love that the fullness of the law is attained. “Give alms,” says Jesus, “and behold, everything will be clean for you.”
Jeannette de Beauvoir works in the digital department of Pauline Books & Media as marketing copywriter and editor. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she studied with Adian Kavanagh, OSB, she is particularly interested in liturgics and Church history.