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. For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, "Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?" He responded, "Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition." He summoned the crowd again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.
"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."
At first glance, Jesus seems to diminish – even outright reject – ritual. This is not the only instance of it either. In similar circumstances, he recited the mantra (circulating among Jewish theologians of the time) that, “the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
But elsewhere, Jesus will overturn the tables of the money-changers in the Temple to protect its sanctity. He clearly participated in liturgy in synagogues and took great personal risk to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. His celebration of Passover provided the prelude for his execution. It is a deeply ritualized meal structured around the blessing bread and wine, recited remembrance and incantation. Its Christian successor, the Eucharist, is similarly ritualized.
We think of Jesus as being the great teacher of human morality, but I believe this is incorrect. Jesus was overwhelmingly concerned with telling us about the moral code God follows rather than the moral code we should follow. In Jesus’s time, both popular culture and theologians believed that God rewarded and punished based on behavior. Many of us still do – although we hedge it a little. Time and time again, Jesus said emphatically, “no”: God loves the sinner. Sickness is not a sign of God’s disfavor – God has a special place in His heart for the sick, the meek, the poor and the poor in spirit. The man blind from birth is not cursed; he is loved. God’s morality is mercy. He tells us this not because we are supposed to emulate God (although it would be nice), but so that we understand and fully appreciate the profound depth and radical nature of God’s love of us.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees are implying that God will look unfavorably on those who do not follow ritual – that they are rendering themselves impure. Jesus is not rejecting ritual. His commitment to ritual elsewhere is too strong. I think Jesus is insisting ritual must be followed for the right reasons: not to receive divine reward or avoid divine punishment, but because it is how we approach God in community, because it makes us more resiliently happy, as an expression of a sense of gratitude or creatureliness (as Rudolph Otto would say), or humility. The Pharisees in the story are not wrong to follow ritual – they are “hypocrites” - they follow ritual for the wrong reasons.
Belief in God remains extremely high in the United States. Rates of daily and weekly prayer are actually increasing. But participation in liturgy is collapsing at a rate of about1% per year – which is catastrophic. Perhaps we have decided God doesn’t ‘require’ ritual as long as we are altruistic (as long as, “I am a good person”). The challenge is to wonder if there is another reason to go.