As we approach the middle of Lent, it’s worthwhile to consider the thoughts Holy Mother Church puts before our mind on this Wednesday of the Third Week in Lent.
While the entire liturgy is of great importance, today we will briefly consider the Gospel for today, Matthew 15:1-20.
At that time the scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying: Why do Thy disciples transgress the tradition of the ancients? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But He answering said to them: Why do you also transgress the commandment of God for your tradition? For God said: Honor thy father and mother. And: He that shall curse father or mother, let him die the death. But you say: Whosever shall say to father or mother: The gift, whatsoever proceedeth from me, shall profit thee: and he shall not honor his father or his mother: and you have made void the commandments of God for your tradition. Hypocrites, well hath Isaias prophesied of you, saying: This people honoreth Me with their lips: but their heart is far from Me. And in vain do they worship Me, teaching doctrines and commandments of men. And having called together the multitudes unto Him, He said to them: Hear ye and understand. Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but what cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. Then came His disciples and said to Him: Dost Thou know that the Pharisees, when they heard this word, were scandalized? But He answering said: Every plant which My Heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up. Let them alone: they are blind and leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit. And Peter answering, said to Him: Expound to us this parable. But He said: Are you also yet without understanding? Do you not understand that whatsoever entereth into the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the privy? But the things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and those things defile a man: for from the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man. But to eat with unwashed hands doth not defile a man.
We should look at a few particular elements of this passage for further consideration:
– The accusations of the scribes and Pharisees
– The response of Our Lord to those accusations
– Our Lord’s teaching to the multitudes
– The final discussion between Our Lord and His disciples
The Accusations of the scribes and Pharisees
The first thing that must be examined is the precise nature of the complaint made to Our Lord. St. Thomas tells us in his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, that the Jews had a custom of regularly washing their hands when eating. He points us back to the Gospel of Mark 7:2, where it states, “When they had seen some of his disciples eat bread with common, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault.” Now, the first thing St. Thomas explains is that the custom of washing was not a commandment of God but rather of men. That being said, St. Thomas does not take the position that this custom is contrary to the commandment of God, but rather that it is not on the same level as God’s commandments.
Because of this, St. Thomas gives the reason why the disciples did not wash their hands: “Why were they not washing their hands? It was because they were so preoccupied with the word of God that they did not even have time: hence, due to their preoccupation for spiritual things, they were not washing their hands in the manner that the Jews did.”
Similarly, in his Catena Aurea, St. Thomas quotes St. John Chrysostom as laying the particular defense of the disciples, “But the disciples now did not eat with washen hands, because they already despised all things superfluous, and attended only to such as were necessary; thus they accepted neither washing nor not washing as a rule, but did either as it happened.”
But, if this rule was not commanded from God directly, and if it was only part of the law of the ancients (though not of Moses), then why did the scribes and Pharisees insist upon it? Here again, from the Catena, St. Thomas again quotes St. John Chrysostom saying that the priests of the Old Law, “fearing lest any should take away their rule and power, they sought to increase the awe in which they were held, by setting themselves forth as legislators.”
So, we see here two points:
1. The scribes and Pharisees had set up laws unnecessary for men, but which sought to increase their power and honor in this world.
2. The disciples of Christ sometimes neglected the rituals of man, not out of malice for the authority of the priests and scribes, but through being consumed with a hunger for the things of God
The Response of Our Lord
Knowing the exact nature of the “transgression” and the reasons behind the complaint, it is important to now consider Our Lord’s response.
St. Thomas tells us that the response of Our Lord does two things:
1. It does not excuse the disciples, but rather points out the unworthiness of those making the accusation
2. Our Lord points specifically to the Commandment which they transgress.
St. Jerome puts it thus: “Since ye because of the tradition of men neglect the commandment of God, why do ye take upon you to reprove my disciples, for bestowing little regard upon the precepts of the elders, that they may observe the commandments of God?”
Even here we see the manifest charity of Our Lord, who even when reproaching the faithless scribes and Pharisees, does so in a way to point out to them their specific transgressions against the commandments of God. But which commandment is precisely offended by them?
It is a violation of the commandment to “Honor thy father and mother.” In the Catena, St. Thomas quotes from numerous fathers who explain exactly what is meant here. To put it simply, the Fathers explain that the priests of the Old Law were encouraging the practice that young men would give to the Temple that which should have been given to take care of their parents. Thus the statement that “The gift, whatsoever proceedeth from me, shall profit thee.” Basically here the meaning is the son telling his father and mother that the gift he gives to the temple will profit them spiritually, but which St. Thomas explains is a violation against the command to the love we are bound to have for our neighbor, and also for the love of God, shown by fidelity to His commandments.
The Teaching to the Multitude
In his commentary, St. Thomas explains that the teaching Our Lord gives in this instance relates to the perfection of the moral law. Augustine explains the Catholic understanding of this in the same way (again, quoting the commentary of St. Thomas): “A thing is said to be unclean in one way on account of its nature: and, in this way, nothing is unclean, according to that which is written: ‘For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be rejected that is received with thanksgiving.’ Likewise, something can be unclean according to its signification; and, in this way, something can be a sign of uncleanness or of cleanliness…” He concludes, “But because the truth was manifested at Christ’s coming, the figures ceased.”
We can see here two declarations. First, nothing is unclean in itself, since God is the Creator of all things, and the Author of all nature. Two, the division of things into clean and unclean served a purpose during the age of “types.” But now that Christ is on earth, the age of types and figures is over.
The Conversation of Our Lord and His Disciples
We will skip over much of this section, not because it is not vitally important, but because the meaning of Our Lord is direct, in that He Himself explains the details of the parable to His disciples. But let’s consider for one moment the first exchange between Christ and His disciples. After they state that the scribes and Pharisees were scandalized, Our Lord tells His disciples, “Let them alone.”
St. Thomas wonders, looking at this passage, why it is that Christ seemingly ignores the question of their scandal, considering He instructs Peter at another time to pay the Temple tax, even though the Lord ought to be exempt.
St. Thomas states (quoting at length): “But ought one never be concerned about scandal? Did not the Lord, to avoid scandal, send Peter to the sea, so that he might pay the tribute? It ought to be said that scandal sometimes arises from the truth; hence it is said: Scandal must be avoided which can be avoided without prejudice to the truth or justice. Hence, a judge should not change his verdict if someone is scandalized therefrom. But, nevertheless, it ought to be distinguished that some men are scandalized due to their weakness, and others are scandalized due to their certain malice.
But scandal does not need to be avoided if it is due to malice: and these men were scandalized in this way. Hence, if they were not scandalized due to malice, the Lord would not have said, ‘Let them alone,’ but rather, ‘Instruct them.’”
Given the above, it is clear that Holy Mother Church wishes us to meditate upon this event in the life of Christ, particularly during this Lenten season. What then, is the thought it should leave us with? Having considered the meaning of the text according to St. Thomas and some of the Fathers, we are left with the central teaching of this event: “But the things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and those things defile a man: for from the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies.”
It is clear that during Lent, a time consecrated to reparation for our sins, the Church wishes us to avoid all of our excuses and justifications, and to meditate upon the fact that the words which come from our mouth proceed from our heart, and that it is only in a purity of heart in which we shall avoid the many sins which have henceforth plagued us.
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A thorough book review by Dr. Wolfgang Koch.
About Dr. Koch: After his studies in Physics and Mathematics, Wolfgang Koch graduated with a PhD degree in Theoretical Physics at Aachen Technical University (RWTH) and a habilitation degree at the University of Bonn in Computer Science. He is head of a research department the Fraunhofer Society, Professor for Computer Science at Bonn University, Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Distinguished Lecturer, and active in the Board of Governors of the IEEE, Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society and the International Society of Information Fusion.