22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Fr. Simham)
Holiness of heart
Two monks, Brother Francis and an elder monk, are walking down a muddy road on a rainy day. They came upon a lovely young girl dressed in fine silk, who was afraid to cross the river because of the flood and the mud. “Come on, girl,” said Brother Francis. And he picked her up in his strong arms, and carried her across the river. The two monks walked on in silence till they reached the monastery. Then the elder monk couldn’t bear it any longer. “Monks shouldn’t go near young girls,” he said, “certainly not beautiful ones like that one! Why did you do it?” “Dear brother,” said Brother Francis, “I put the girl down by the river bank, but you have brought her into the monastery and you are still carrying her in your heart.”
My dear brothers and sisters, These two monks in the story have the same goal. Searching for the same Holiness. But both have a different understanding of what holiness is or means. In the same way, in the gospel we heard today, both Pharisees and Jesus speak about holiness but both have a different understanding of what holiness means.
First of all, let us understand who these Pharisees are? And what holiness means for them? The Pharisees are one of the two most well-known Jewish sects from the time of Jesus (the other being the Sadducees). The name of the Pharisees literally means ‘separated ones’. Their roots go back to the movement of ‘the pious’ (Hebrew Hasidim) who with the Maccabees, opposed attempts to introduce Greek elements into Jewish culture in the second century BC. Later they opposed the Maccabees when they combined secular and religious offices. And they became a separate group of laymen who had chosen to live in strictest adherence to scribal tradition and law. It was their extreme piety or observance of the traditions rather than their wisdom that set them apart from others, and they often went to great lengths to demonstrate that piety.
In Jerusalem the Pharisees lived in several communities. Membership was limited to men who had showed an ability to follow scribal teachings. Members were required to fast twice a week, to observe fixed daily hours of prayer and to take part in a weekly communal meal. The Pharisees saw themselves as practicing the ideal way of life and were convinced that their communities would form the core of the community of the righteous in the Messiah’s kingdom. They were often very critical of the people who did not live as they did. So for them holiness or righteousness is strict adherence to the rituals and traditions.
So they question the disciples of Jesus and their holiness. For them the followers of Jesus are not holy because they do not fast as they and the disciples of John fast, they break the Sabbath and eat the corns, and they now eat their food without washing their hands. They are ritually impure.
It is here that Jesus fundamentally differs in his understanding of holiness. For him holiness is a matter of the heart, the centre of our being. So he takes that opportunity to teach these men who prided themselves in obeying the law and traditions as the only way of holiness at the cost of the holiness of the heart that they missed the bus. They missed the essence of the law and religion. The essence of the law and religion is “Love; love of God above all things and love of neighbour as yourself.” And it is the matter of the heart not hands. Because they insist on one at the neglect of the other, he calls them as hypocrites.
Then he turns to the people and says what is essential is the cleanliness of the heart not the hands. Cleanliness of the mind not the plates and glasses. In other words, he is saying ‘Get your priorities right. Get your understanding of religion and holiness right. Strive for the holiness of heart. Don’t be like the blind man leading another blind men. Know this beatitude: “Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Even today we can come across people who are extremely religious (Observing all the religious practices and devotions) and equate religion and holiness to that. But what is important is the heart and all those things that proceed from it. What is important is what you do after these rituals. Holiness is a matter of the heart and inner being. It is purity or cleanliness of the heart. It is keeping away from all those things that malign your heart and inner being and make it unholy.
As we are gathered here to have an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist, let us remember this truth. That it is a pure of heart, a heart that has no malice, or envy or pride or avarice or gossip that can see God. And it is the sacrament of confession that can clean your heart and make it holy and worthy dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Fr. Showreelu Simham