Every social grouping—families, schools, cities, various organizations, nations—has rules or laws. The purpose of these rules or laws is not to bind people to rigid behaviors, but to facilitate the relationships that bind them to one another as a social grouping. So it is with God’s commandments and our relationship to God and each other.
In this gospel Jesus faces the Pharisees and some scribes with how they use human traditions to oppress the community of God’s people. In effect they have put themselves above God, upsetting the relationships that God’s commandments are meant to preserve and deepen. Jesus turns their judgment about him and his disciples back on them. He teaches that no human tradition can supplant God’s commandments.
It’s easier to clean the pots and pans than to clean one’s heart! The Pharisees are concerned with washing hands; Jesus is concerned about washing feet! Law is not given to be kept for its own sake; law is given for the good of the people. Any traditions to which we adhere must be for the sake of the purpose of God’s commandments: to live in right relationship with God and each other.
What traditions do we blindly cling to? Perhaps it is enough for us just to go to Mass on Sunday; after all, this is what most of us grew up doing; this is what Catholics do. Or perhaps we cling to rote prayers that we learned as a child rather than stretch our relationship with God to find new prayer expressions. We need to look at the way we live, and this will tell us whether we have hearts truly turned toward God in a healthy and life-giving relationship. Purity of heart is expressed in righteous living—self-giving for the sake of others that deepens our relationships. This is how we have life. This is how commandments free us.