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Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Heart of the Matter

When clay becomes a pot, it must first have a center. As a potter spins, pushes, and pulls the clay into its final form, it can easily lose its center and become misshapen. Having lost its center, it fails to fully be what it is being created to be—a pot, a pitcher, a plate, a thing of beauty, a vessel for others.

Faith and religious practice have lost their center in today’s readings. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus calls into question “This people” that “honors me with their lips” but whose “hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6). Some in the religious community have begun focusing on surface matters (the washing of hands, what one eats, the traditions of the elders) and have forgotten the core. What really matters is how one’s faith is expressed in mercy, in words and actions that build up rather than tear down the neighbor.

In the second reading James wonders about those who look at themselves in a mirror and upon walking away forget who they are (James 1:23-24). For James, they are simply hearers of the word and not doers. Their lives do not reflect the love and mercy that has claimed them.

And so it is with us. We do not live as the people God has claimed us to be. Our lives lose their center. Our faith practices focus on surface things rather than the core. We fail to be what God has created and is creating us to be—vessels poured out for others. We look at ourselves in the mirror and upon walking away forget who and whose we are.

At the heart of the Christian assembly is Jesus—in word, in song, in prayer, in the neighbor, in water, bread, and wine. Jesus, who embodies forgiveness and mercy, is the heart. Again and again, life becomes misshapen. Again and again, the potter reshapes the clay. The splash of a watery cross, the taste of bread and wine: these things center life in Christ. God’s mercy washes over us. God’s mercy is implanted in us. God creates life anew; deformed hearts are reformed for works of mercy and love.

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Mark’s gospel depicts Jesus as challenging traditional ways in which religious people determine what is pure or impure. For Jesus, the observance of religious practices cannot become a substitute for godly words or deeds that spring from a faithful heart.

1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
 ‘This people honors me with their lips,
  but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
  teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”