Today’s gospel text focuses on the observance of “the tradition of the Elders.” It included the collection of the legal interpretations of the written law regarded by the Scribes and Pharisees as having the same binding force as the Mosaic law itself. The collection is published in what is called the Talmud. These are traditions about the Sabbath, worship, clothing, marriage, business, work, as well as food.
It is believed that these traditions constituted ways of keeping Jewish identity as well as Judaism, the faith tradition of the Jewish people. The traditions were to enhance their practice of their faith in everyday life.
The famous Danish Philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, used to say that “reading the Bible is like looking into a mirror.” So, hearing Jesus criticizing the Scribes and Pharisees, should remind us that we should not look too far away – to the practices of the Jewish people of Jesus’ time – let us look at ourselves instead. We also have “traditions” which help to sustain our Catholic identity. For example, we fast during Lent; we do not eat meat on Fridays of Lent (some have stretched this practice to include not eating meat on Fridays throughout the year). We also sign ourselves with holy water, we kneel to pray, especially during the Eucharistic prayer at Mass. There are many other practices; I could go on and on. However, there are questions we need to ask ourselves: (1) Do we understand these practices, or “traditions”? (2) Why do we keep them? (3) Do they help us to live our faith better? If keeping these traditions enhance our faith life, then that should be applauded. If, on the other hand, they do not help us to live our faith better, but have become obstacles to living the faith, then our reading of today’s gospel should be a good look of ourselves in the “mirror of the gospels.”
Reading today’s gospel passage in tandem with Jesus’ way of life, we know that he himself kept many of the Jewish traditions. So, he is not against his ancestral traditions per se; he is criticizing the Scribes and Pharisees for allowing the traditions to obscure the real living of their faith. Jesus is teaching us that our traditions should help to renew and deepen our faith.
Another point worth reflecting on is that the traditions that we keep, just like those mentioned in the scriptures, are external observances. They do not, and cannot, automatically sanctify anyone to make that person holy. Holiness is an act of the inner being – from the heart. So is sinfulness; it is also from within. That explains Jesus’ conclusion: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”