In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, the Pharisees are amazed to see that Jesus “did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.” He responds by chastising them, saying:
Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.
The Pharisees, we know, were obsessed with adherence for the law. In fact, the law of Moses did not require washing for ordinary meals unless one had been tainted by something “unclean.” For the Pharisees, that teaching had morphed into an automatic ritual washing before meals; one commentator called their behavior an imitation of the ritual purity of priests in the temple.
Jesus’ problem is not with adherence to ritual (which may be an aid in our transformation) or even to an effort to try to do more than rules require. Instead, his response reminds us that it is easy to get caught up in traditions and rules to the point where they blind us to what true adherence to the law looks like.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees invites us to reflect on what it really means to live a life of holiness. And he helps us answer that question, reminding us to focus on “what is within.” External acts of devotion unaccompanied by a transformation – by an interior cleansing – are empty.