“You nullify the word of God in favor of your traditions” (Mark 7:13).
Jesus takes on the Pharisees who complained that his disciples were not observing their ritual hand-washing and dish and cup purity laws. What were originally practices meant to protect the community from contagion or food-borne diseases had taken on symbolic value that enhanced the status of the clergy and religious. Their obsessive adherence to the traditions set them apart from the “unwashed” masses and those regarded as morally “unclean,” or public sinners.
Jesus frequently challenged this approach to the law as a way to isolate ordinary people, label certain groups as “untouchable” or outcast. He did not hesitate to heal people on the Sabbath, even though that was technically a form of work, because to heal was an act of love, which always superceded lesser rules. Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, touched lepers and associated with pagans, including Romans and foreigners. He freely responded to human need and put other protocols second.
Jesus pointed up the hypocrisy in the selective application of certain lesser laws while ignoring major obligations to support parents or, in general, to keep the commandment to love.
Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of the tendency to make ourselves superior and safe from people we don’t want to associate with. Ordinary caution about germs can excuse us from touching others at Mass, during the peace sign or in extending a greeting. Hand sanitizers come out immediately. But we also avoid contact with others who are different, look different, live differently, and we justify this with the conviction that there is something wrong with them.
Our health-conscious knowledge of illness can help us be prudent, but also reveals ways we isolate others for various reasons.
Love is less a set of rules than a challenge to discernment that urges us to respond with compassion and even to risk our own interests in the service of others, especially those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable to public prejudices and discrimination. Discipleship requires courage. Jesus leads those who follow him into situations we can only negotiate once we are there.