Happy Birthday to you.
Happy Birthday to you.
Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday
Happy Birthday to you.
Early in the pandemic, public health officials did not know precisely how the Coronavirus spread. As a precaution, they urged everyone to clean their hands often, using soap and water or hand sanitizer. They suggested washing our hands, especially after coming in from out of doors or after close contact with other people. Health officials encouraged diligently cleaning between our fingers, along the surface of our fingernails, and up to our wrists, rubbing our hands together under running water for as long as it takes us to sing the Happy Birthday Song. Diligent handwashing is a good practice for proper hygiene every day and not just during a pandemic.
The handwashing controversy in today’s Gospel reading isn’t a question of proper cleanliness. It was the 19th Century before health science connected clean hands and good health. The controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees wasn’t the First Century equivalent of an argument between Dr. Fauchi and the talking heads on Fox and Friends. This argument was part of a more significant religious controversy. Handwashing was only a tiny illustration of the dispute.
The actual argument was between the elite practices of the Pharisees and those the ordinary person was able to follow. The Pharisees were a group of Jews who were trying to be faithful to God’s Law. In today’s reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, we heard Moses proclaim if the people were faithful to God, They would be a great nation. The people would be able to say:
This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.
For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?”
In the process, though, the Pharisees got bogged down in minutia. They carefully tried to follow the Mosaic Law as a sign of their faith in God but, in the process, got hamstring.
Life without laws is chaotic and unmanageable. Life with too much law is repressive and dehumanizing. That was what was happening with the Pharisees. They had expanded the Law of Moses from the Ten Commandments into 613 precepts of the law they held were as crucial as the original Ten Commandments. If a person didn’t follow all these precepts of the Law, they were considered unclean and unfit to worship God in the Jerusalem Temple. At any given time two thirds to three-quarters of the Jews were considered to be unclean. Many people, because of their occupation or living conditions, were habitually unclean. The Pharisaic interpretation of the Law was making it impossible for most people to become close to God.
The regulation surrounding hand washing is a case in point. It originally pertained only to the priests serving in the Temple and their preparations before eating the sacrificial meal. Originally all the people weren’t expected to follow this regulation before every meal. It wasn’t similar to singing the Happy Birthday Song while washing their hands before every meal.
The method for handwashing was even more precise. The Law stated how exactly to hold the hands and the amount of water used in the process. The time it took to fulfilling these requirements and the lack of running water in people’s homes made it difficult for most people to follow this prescription of the Law before eating every meal. Only a wealthy, urban elite could be faithful to ceremonial hand washing before every meal, as the Pharisees prescribed them to do.
The Pharisees’ contention that to worship God properly, a person had to follow the strict precepts of the Law made most people feel inadequate and unholy. Many people felt a relationship with God was beyond their ability.
Jesus came to correct that misconception. He came to transform the way people understood God’s covenant. While according to Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus taught:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.
Jesus came to reveal that holiness didn’t come from following laws and precepts but from a personal relationship with Him. Jesus taught faithfulness didn’t come through outward signs but from the disposition of their hearts. Outward religiosity is no guarantee a person has an obedient heart. It isn’t a sure sign of true fidelity to God. We can say the Rosary daily, receive the Eucharist at least every Sunday, and quote scripture. We can give generously to the parish but still have a rebellious heart.
In his preaching, Jesus radically recast for his listeners the difference between what made a person clean or unclean. It wasn’t how clean someone’s hands and cooking vessels or their bed might be. What makes a person clean is whether they love God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and their neighbor as themself. A close relationship with God comes from our treatment of the poor and needy.
How do we establish such a close relationship with God? The Letter of James gives us good directions. Today we heard:
“Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you
and is able to save your souls.”
Our relationship with Jesus develops when we read about him in the scriptures. We learn about Jesus in all the Bible but especially in the Gospels and Epistles. I encourage listeners who aren’t familiar with the Bible to start reading it. Begin with the book called the Acts of the Apostles. This book of the Bible tells us about the development of the early Church. It relates how the early Christians faced issues concerning faith in Jesus and developed relationships with Him. Their stories are our stories. We can use them to understand and come to love Jesus as they did.
If you don’t already, resolve this week to set aside time for prayer every day. If prayer is new to you, start small. Five or ten minutes at whatever time of day suits your schedule best is a good start. Add a few minutes every day. A relationship with Jesus needs our faithful attention but will provide us with tremendous rewards.
Good works also help us grow in the love of God because God is present in our needy brothers and sisters. James also wrote:
Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Make a real commitment to sharing God’s blessing of time, talent, and treasure with others. James isn’t suggesting we give a dollar here and one there from time to time. Consider giving a percentage of your income to worthwhile causes to help the materially and spiritually poor. Can you start maybe at 3 or 4% of your income and work your way higher? Financing the spreading of the gospel message is the most excellent use of our treasure, so of course, your parish should top the list for your charitable giving. I set 10% as my goal. I give 5% here to the parish, 2 ½ % for our Diocesan Appeal, and 2 ½ for other charities I support. I have never found myself wanting materially for anything.
Don’t neglect using your time and talent to help our needy widows and orphans. Many here at Holy Redeemer have tremendous skills. Offer them to your parish and your community. Time is probably our most valuable commodity. Use it too to make our world more like the Kingdom of God.
Cleanliness may be next to Godliness, but washing your hands often won’t necessarily deepen your relationship with Jesus. Receiving the Eucharist at least every weekend will. As Catholics, we believe Jesus comes to us in the Communion, we celebrate at every Mass. Here today, Jesus will again offer us His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity to give us the grace to deepen our relationship with Him. Jesus will provide us with His Real Presence to strengthen our relationship with Him. Welcome it today and share it with your world so everyone can feel the healing strength of God.