Mk 7:1-8,14-15,21-23 & James 1:17-18,21-22,27
Here we are opening our candy season this week and our gospel message today is telling us that unwashed hands are really not that important!! This seems to be very poor timing! The teaching of Christ in this gospel seems pretty simple to grasp…but is it? Even the disciples had to ask Jesus for further explanation. So this gospel requires pondering and self-examination. It cannot be read quickly and the disciples understood this as they probed deeper. Jesus is always calling us to move to the interior where real things in life matter.
Food scientists tell us that unclean hands and unsanitized dishes can cause bacteria, disease, illness, and even death. There is the parallel with an unclean heart, clouded motives, or negative emotions that can cause spiritual disease, illness, and even spiritual death. In my lectio, two places in Scripture came to mind. The first is Pontus Pilate who washed his hands in the hopes of cleansing himself of responsibility for his actions. He was left with clean hands but not a pure heart. Pilate shows us that we can’t cleanse the inside by washing the outside. Nor can responsibility for our actions be simply wiped away.
The second Scripture passage that came to mind is the story of Jesus’ multiplication of bread and fish. Five thousand people were organized into groups of 50 on the grass. Can you imagine all 5,000 people breaking up from their groups to run down to the lake and wash their hands before eating? Staring out at the water they would have missed the miracle behind them. They would have fulfilled the outer ritual… but missed Jesus doing miracles in their midst.
Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites. The opposite of this is integrity. Whether we have integrity or hypocrisy depends exactly on how well we integrate our interior life with our exterior actions and speech. When both are one and the same, we are one with our self, we are one with others, and we are one with God. This happens to be the definition of a monk, monos. So we see today’s gospel holds an essential message for us as monks – one to be probed deeply. Both goodness and sin originate in the interior and can create either unity or alienation from God, others, and our self. So our focus should begin with the interior – one’s motives, conscience, and heart. We all know how easy it can be to justify our actions yet be far from the truth. We also know how we can follow all the rules yet still be without obedience. These come from the interior and exterior being out of cinque. St James puts it in different words: “Humbly welcome the word planted inside you”…but be not only hearers of the word but be doers of the word. St James is saying, as Christians, the interior word within us is the source of our exterior behavior. It is being integrated - living with integrity.
Thomas Merton said, “Action and contemplation grow together into one life and one unity. They become two aspects of the same thing. Action (or work) is charity looking outward to others, and contemplation is charity drawn inward to its own divine source. Work is the stream, and contemplation is the spring.” (No Man is an Island) In other words, unless a person continuously renews her intimacy w/ Christ and is receptive to God’s love in prayer, one cannot effectively give that love to others in her work. The two need each other. If the spring dries up, so does the stream! (“Merton’s Theology of Prayer”)
Jesus goes on to say, quoting Isaiah: if “people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far away from me, in vain do they worship me”. In other words we cannot worship and honor God just in speech but it must come from our hearts. These are challenging words since we enter into the Liturgy seven times a day to worship and praise God. Is it all in vain if we don’t also love all those around us?! This should wake us up – this should make us want to run back constantly to the living spring!
In the sacraments and in our Cistercian rituals the exterior gestures and symbols bring to mind the invisible power of the divine presence. What moves us and brings us grace is interior…if we only focus on the exterior rubrics we can miss the grace - cleansing our hands but not our hearts. The Rule of St Benedict quotes Ps 24 saying “the one who ascends the mountain of the Lord and stands in His holy place” is “the one who has clean hands and a pure heart” (vs4) What better way to gain a pure, clean heart than to drink of the purest cup that will ever be offered: The chalice of Christ Blood. What finer wheat than on the paten that holds the Body of Christ. The Lord is inviting us to his table - are we prepared for the feast?
Or we can also look at the sacrament of Baptism. Water itself doesn’t cleanse – pigs roll in it and cruel people bathe in it but remain unclean. What cleanses us is the living water of God’s Spirit that springs up from within. Like Merton said, prayer and receiving God’s love is the spring, and from that, a stream of loving actions flow out of our lives.
So we can see what this gospel is asking of us this candy season: to remain in Jesus’ Heart, Love, and Presence through prayer, good spiritual reading, and the liturgy - so that we may be loving and generous in the work asked of us and to people around us. It begins inside the vessel and overflows into outer action.
St Bernard speaks of 7 steps to an unclean heart. I won’t go into all of them but they are all worth pondering. The first is negligence. We want to give our self totally and freely to the work asked of us, not grumbling or being discontent. Wanting to be somewhere else, or do something else, erodes God’s presence in the moment. He says the second step is curiosity. It brings us out of our self in order to watch others. Bernard says when we catch this happening beware of our own soul's state for we are in more danger than the one we watch! Energy is wasted when we are thinking about anything other than what is or who is before us. We all want to join in the common work bringing Jesus with us - remembering that “whatever we do we do it for God”. Focusing on Christ, and not our own expectations and desires will lead us to a pure heart full of charity and gratitude.
So this candy season, yes clean hands are important, but the real challenge for us this season is to work with a pure heart. To spread joy, peace, and charity in our work – this comes from a heart full of God and full of love. From this streams an exterior of gentleness, smiles, kind words, and graciousness. This is what makes our work a form of worship. This is what makes our candy work sweet!
…So as we make our caramels this season let us experience this “sweetness of the Lord” with “clean hands and a pure heart”.