I am sure you have had the experience of telling a joke where the execution and timing have been rather good – and yet one or more of your friends in the group that surrounds you just don’t get the point. Perhaps you have also had the similar experience of hearing a joke and while other roar with laughter you just don’t get it. At all. Now, someone could attempt to explain what the significance of some key word or missing concept that prevents you or others from understanding why the joke is so funny – but that is far from ideal. We seem to have a very similar situation in the Gospel today – although not nearly so funny as that well executed joke.
The fact that Mark takes so much time to clue his audience into the scene, providing ample additional explanatory notes and asides to them and us, is the main reason that we know that the people that Mark was writing this Gospel to were not Jewish. A Jewish audience would not need to know that they have a bit of a thing – an obsession some might say – with washing hands, dishes and pots. They knew this from their very earliest days. It was just one of those things that you did as a Jew. We might not even think twice about the good and sensible advice of ensuring your hands are clean before eating – surely our mothers told us this many times when we came into the table from playing in the backyard with the dog – but this was not commonly practiced in the ancient world. You only have to travel to other continents to realise that the obsession that we have about food preparation and handling are not quite shared with the same level of passion.
But when Jesus was asked this question about hand washing, he turns the question around to be something about human tradition. External ritual can never make us holy or sinful. It is our hearts that matter. Which we will miss the full impact of if we only read the oddly shortened version of this Gospel that is presented by the Lectionary today (both Catholic and Common) which omits some key verses that remind us of the tendency to subvert scripture by human traditions – so make sure you read all twenty-three verses together to get the full impact. It doesn’t take long for Jesus to take this discussion about human traditions into explosive new territory.
Sunday 22, Year B. Mark 7:1-23