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Homily for 22nd Sunday year B

28 Aug 2021, by Rev. Fr. Joel Okojie OSA in Sermons

Our liturgy today is centered on the law, particularly the Jewish ritual of handwashing.

In our first reading, we see how Moses emphasized the need to keep God’s commandments diligently. Throughout history, the people were taught to obey the law in fear and trembling. They learned to trust in their faithfulness to the law rather than trusting in God’s faithfulness to save. We see that misunderstanding in our gospel reading.

Some Pharisees and some Scribes came from Jerusalem, and they noticed that some of Jesus’ apostles were eating without first washing their hands as the law required. They asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?” In his response, Jesus drew their attention from the purity of the hand to the purity of the heart. The Pharisees and the Scribes forgot the real significance of the ritual washing, and it is good we remind ourselves this morning of the origin of this ritual from Temple worship.

In Exodus 30:17-21, God commanded Moses to make a bronze basin and put it between the tent of meeting and the altar. Moses was to put water in the basin for Aaron, the priest, and his children to wash their hands and feet before going up to the altar to offer sacrifices. When the Jewish Temple was destroyed, and there was no longer altar of sacrifice, the washing ritual was moved to the dining table to preserve the tradition of washing. That was how it became the Jewish tradition to wash hands before eating.

Jesus is not against this tradition; he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mt. 5:17). So, Jesus calling the Pharisees and the Scribes hypocrites when they questioned why some of his disciples eat without first washing; he wasn’t condemning the Jewish tradition of hand washing, but drawing them to a deeper understanding of the law and relationship with God. We see a reflection of the Jewish tradition of hand washing even in our celebration of the Eucharist today; before the priest invites the people to join in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, he washes his hands while praying silently for cleansing and purification. The washing is a symbol of something spiritual; what matters, therefore, is not the symbol but the spiritual reality. With or without handwashing, the priest offers a valid sacrifice at Mass by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

So, Jesus, who knows the heart of everyone, saw through the hearts of the Pharisees and the Scribes to see how dirty their hearts were even though they emphasized the ritual of handwashing. Such a pharisaic attitude is what Christ is condemning today, a call to rise above the mere observance of the law to embrace the love and mercy of God. Moses was directed to put some water in the basin, but Jesus came as the fountain of life. He invites us to faith and to drink from him, the fountain of living water, the fountain of unfathomable mercy.

Dear friends, in one way or the other, we all have sinned against God and one another, and our redemption does not come by being mere ritualistic in the practice of our Christian faith. While God expects us to be obedient to the law, we are however not to let the law become a burden. Our obedience to the law should be a reflection of our trust and love for God, not an imposition. As we wash our hands, let’s also ask the Lord to help us clean and purify our hearts of every form of impurity.