Remember back to a time when you were younger and your parents asked you to clean your room. Because you operated under the principle of, “Work smarter, not harder,” you shoved everything into the closet or under the bed and were done in under two minutes. When your parents walked by the room everything looked nice and tidy. In the short term, your plan worked: the room looked clean. But open the closet door, and the mess was still there.
And perhaps some of you have read or had to read in school a classic novel called “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde. In the story, the title character becomes friends with an aristocrat and is enthralled because by his hedonistic lifestyle and overall philosophy on life: that beauty and pleasure are the only things worth pursuing in life. When an artist paints his portrait, Dorian Gray sells his soul, making the wish that his youthfulness and attractiveness, which have become all-important to him, will never fade. Time passes, and Dorian Gray looks the same. But his wickedness increases, and the painting, which he has hidden away in the attic, mysteriously begins to change: the more wicked he becomes, the uglier and more hideous the image in the painting grows.
Both of these scenarios illustrate to some degree what Jesus is referring to in today’s Gospel. The scribes and Pharisees have again challenged Jesus because they’ve noticed that his disciples do not perform ritual washings before eating, and they are scandalized by it. Jesus responds by calling them out for “leaving the commandment of God, and holding fast to the tradition of men.” Then he later explains to his disciples that all manner of evil originates within us, and he concludes by saying, “All these evil things come from within, and they are what defile.”
I think a little historical context is helpful here. First of all, who exactly were the Pharisees. Although their role in Jewish society evolved a little over time, they were essentially members of a renewal movement within Judaism that developed around 150 years before Christ in response to the Greek invasion of the Jewish homeland. The Pharisees “sought to restore God’s favor to Israel by advocating strict observance of the [Jewish] law and total separation from” the Gentiles, i.e. anyone who was not a Jew. They believed that it, in order for Israel to be returned to its former greatness and overcome their political enemies, all Jews had to follow the much stricter observance of Jewish Law which the Pharisees developed. They took the Jewish Law which the Lord had given to Moses at Mount Sinai and added on to it, making it stricter and more all-encompassing. For example, according to the Jewish Law, only priests had to perform ritual cleansing before offering sacrifices to the Lord and eating their share of the sacrifice. But under the Pharisees, this ritual cleansing became a requirement for ALL Jews to perform before EVERY meal. They considered anyone who did not do this to be unfaithful. And in the meantime, these exterior actions became the most important thing for the Pharisees, and they forgot about the interior dispositions that were not only intended by God to accompany exterior actions, but were in fact the most important part of the Jewish Law. This is what Jesus means when he says, “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast to the tradition of men.”
And Mark also tells us in this Gospel that, when Jesus tells his disciples that evil originates from within the human person, he thereby declares all foods clean. What is this all about? There were indeed certain foods that Jews would not eat because they were considered unclean; i.e., they made you ritually impure, “unfit for worship of God”. Jesus is here “recasting the whole meaning of clean and unclean”, which were legal terms according to the Jewish Law. Jesus is saying that external objects don’t make a person “unfit for worship of God”; what does so is the evil that originates from within the human person, inner uncleanness if you will. Eating a certain kind of food does not make a person evil; rather, evil and sinful actions begin inside of us – within our hearts, within our minds – as an interior disposition or a thought, and then can progress to evil words or actions. For example, resentment towards a person is something that begins within. Perhaps someone slighted you in some way, or you have a co-worker who complains all the time and as a result seems to get special treatment. Within your heart you feel that negativity, a little bit of resentment that takes up lodging inside you. Every time you think of that person and what he or she did, that feeling of resentment grows just a little bit more. Maybe the next time you see him or her, they say something obnoxious, and in your heart, you make a little note of it, and the resentment grows a little more. Eventually you start “venting” your frustration to someone else, in the hopes that that person will share your resentment. The evil that originated inside has spread outward.
Jesus is telling us that what is going on inside our hearts and our minds does matter. Our interior disposition is important. That is where all the action really is taking place – where we make the choice to turn to God or away from Him. If all we have is a shiny and clean exterior, but the inside is rotten and corrupt, then we are not following the Lord; we have made ourselves “unclean”. It’s like the mob boss who goes to church every Sunday but then orders hits on his enemies. Or the character Dorian Gray, who looked great on the outside, while his soul was rotting on the inside. Our interior dispositions should match the face we show to others. That doesn’t mean the exterior is completely irrelevant, but what’s most important is what is going on the inside.
Sadly, the same could be said for some elements in our Church today, as the news lately constantly and painfully reminds us. What we’re going through now as a Church is because some priests and bishops were doing horrible things, while presenting a pleasant exterior to the world. The attempts to cover up the rottenness have failed spectacularly. It is my hope that by exposing the rot to the light, the Lord will purify his Church and we will be able to heal and once again be a credible witness of God’s love and his Truth to the world. But to do this, the hierarchy of the Church has to stop circling the wagons and start admitting to their failings.
I wish that the media and whomever else would stop using this tired old dichotomy of liberal vs. conservative in describing what’s going on. It is not at all helpful. The scandals go much beyond that. If someone has committed this kind of sin, yes, they can be forgiven. The Lord can forgive even the worst sin. We do believe that. But certain sins – even if just committed once – make a man unfit to continue to serve as a priest or bishop, and they have to leave. And as for the cover-ups, perhaps some were done out of a misguided desire to avoid scandal which obviously hasn’t worked; perhaps some were done out of sheer incompetence, and perhaps some were done out of malice. But regardless of the motivations, I think that, in order to restore confidence in the Church, in order for the Church to begin to heal, and in order to prevent this disaster from occurring again, I think anyone involved in a cover-up should resign. The interior of our Church needs to be purified. That’s more important than any one individual’s authority or role in the Church.
Only the Lord can bring this about. We have to call upon him every day to come and renew his Church. And we have to pray that the Lord will purify our own hearts, because none of us is free from sin. Then our own personal holiness will build up Christ’s Body, the Church.