I was once told you could tell the quality of a restaurant or a hotel by the state of the public gents’ and ladies toilets. It is indeed a comfort now to see lists on notice boards in a prominent place in bathrooms/restrooms detailing the regular checking of the state of the toilets by staff, usually on the hour.
Similarly it is and gratifying to see that even hotel restaurant staffs are reminded of the importance of washing their hands. We see deli staff put on fresh gloves as they serve us. We are all aware of the 10 vectors of infection – the 10 fingers. We now know the reason for the importance of such cleanliness because of our advanced knowledge of bacteria and the manner in which food and utensils and work-tops can become contaminated as sources of infection and food poisoning. An occasional outbreak of Salmonella in the news puts us all on our guard. Hygiene is economically important for a solid business reputation and customer base. Liquid gels in hospitals and commercially available hand gels are recent welcome additions to increased awareness of public hygiene.
Washing – personal hygiene, brushing teeth, nail scrubbing, how often we do it, the order in which we do it, the time spent in the bathroom bathing and showering and so on - we are all creatures of ingrained habit in how we wash.
For the Pharisees in the Gospel today washing was about much more than hygiene – it was a complicated system of the elders of ritual cleanness and uncleanness - and therefore was a publicly accountable measure of one’s worthiness before God. This external 'cleanness’ was mistaken for virtue.
But as Jesus counters from the Scriptures: ‘this people honours me with their lips, their hearts are far from me.’
Jesus wants therefore to set us free – in the 21st century - from undue nit-picking, legalism and seeing the wood for the trees and micro-managing ourselves. The law doesn’t save. The following of God from the heart is what matters. The scrupulous following of the 613 laws and rules, and many more besides – became a burden and beyond all reason for the Jews and the Pharisees.
Jesus wants us to keep things simple – and in fact he mentions 12 things that may stem from the heart.
Jesus wants to set us free form worry about external things like pots and pans and surface things – it is the heart is what matters.
But we must avoid complacency on the other hand and realise that we must be vigilant – to be, in the words of the Second Reading from St James this Sunday, - ‘uncontaminated by the world.’ This means that to be a Christian we must be mindful of matters of the heart – but not in the romantic sense. When we look at the list of sins that emerge form the heart we realise that often the external world does in fact become the battleground fpr the senses and the wayward heart. We must be discerning.
We must be Chrsitians from the inside out, but mindful of the outside influences aswell.