A Commentary on Luke 11:37-41 by Fr Randy Flores SVD
Here’s a commentary on the Gospel Reading for October 15 (Tue) which I submitted to the Propaganda Fide for the Extraordinary Month of Mission (October 2019).
Sapat na ang Diyos; Sapat na Siyang Lubos.
Nada te turbe; Dios solo basta.St Teresa of Avila
This is a refrain of a much-loved Filipino song adapted from the poem of St. Teresa of Avila: “Nada te turbe; Dios solo basta.” We used to sing this in a very remote parish on an island where she is the patron saint. In fact, the village is named after her and many children were baptized and named “Teresa”. The village was poor but blessed with so many children. Most families depended on the sea for their subsistence. During the rainy season, however, when there were storms and big waves, they could not go to the sea and it would be “tagkiriwi”, the term you often headr to mean, “no food on the table”. Still, they came to the church and sang “Sapat na ang Diyos” (“God alone suffices”) hoping that the storm would soon pass by and they could go back to fish. Most of them did not know who St. Teresa of Avila was and her contributions to Christian spirituality. They did feel, however, that the saint must have been a person whose inner strength came from God as the song implied.
Luke chapter eleven, where the Gospel Reading for today belongs (Luke 11:37-41), is marked by the theme of dependence on God. At the head of the chapter is the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 1-4) with the first petition: “Give us each day our daily bread” (v. 3) which Jesus would reassure later when he teaches not to “worry about your life, what you will eat…. You Father knows that you need them” (12:22-31). Unfortunately, this beautiful teaching in this chapter is overshadowed by a series of controversies: the question on Jesus’ relationship with Beelzebul (vv. 14-23); the demand to produce a sign from heaven (vv. 29-32); and his unconventional behavior as an invited guest at a dinner (vv. 37-53). With the theme of food (“bread”), the last passage is an inclusio. The food is metaphor for Jesus’ challenging but life-giving teaching as opposed to the “yeast” of the Pharisees (12:1).
We can say that an encounter with Jesus can provoke or disturb one’s peace but also an invitation to a personal decision towards him. “Whoever comes to me,” he teaches later, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciples. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (14:26-27).
For those who have difficulty with clean water like in the village I mentioned above, they are not surprised, and they can perfectly understand, if Jesus forgoes the ritual washing before the meal (cf. 11:38). Water was scarce in that village and salty even. To have a potable water, people walked for two hours to fetch water down from a spring and another two hours for the carabao (water buffalo) to cart five containers of water up to the village. Water was a luxury, and most did not wash their hands before eating or if they did they used the watery barks of banana trunks.
The Pharisee, in contrast, is “surprised” (thaumazō, v. 38) by the behavior of his guest. The Pharisee invited Jesus and as the host, we expect from him the respect due to a guest. In reaction, Jesus takes the chance to teach while presumably enjoys a good Pharisaic cuisine. Did he not he say once, “one does not live by bread alone?” (Luke 4:4). It is not the first time that he eats at the house of a Pharisee (cf. 7:36) where mealtime became a teachable moment as well.
The pericope consists of two parts: the teaching on what cleanliness is all about (11:37-41, Gospel Reading) and the six woes (11:42-53).
The presence of a good number of mikvaot (places of ritual washing as in Qumran) throughout Palestine dating to the first half of the first century C.E. attests to the widespread practice of ritual washing (of either hands or body or both). The Mishnah states that the washing of hands before eating or the nitilatyadayim is a ritual of sanctification (m. Yad. 2.4). That there could have been a dynamic discussion as to what constitutes an authentic washing is reflected in the debate between the groups of the Rabbi Hillel and of Rabbi Shammai. It will not be totally wrong to think that the teach-in that Jesus does in the context of a meal is like a symposium—the practice of the Hellenistic Greeks to discuss various topics of current importance over meals and drinks.
Jesus does not put an end to the practice of ritual washing but tries to recover its proper end which is holiness outside and inside. External rituals are done because they assist the person to an interior change. It is hoped that the washing of hands may lead to the washing of heart, to paraphrase what the Rabbi Shammai said. “Lord, wash away my iniquity and cleanse me of my sins,” prays the priest at the Preparation for the Gifts, echoing the ritual washing (cf. Lavabo) in Psa 51:2.
Through the external act of ritual washing, the person is reminded of his or her dependence on God, the creator. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe who has made us holy with his commandments, and has commanded us the elevation of hands,” goes the Berakahprayer for the nitilat yadayim (washing of the hands).
In a rhetorical question, Jesus reminds his host of this dependence: “Did not the maker [ho poiēsas] of outside also make the [epoiēsen] inside?” (11:40, also in the Gospel of Thomas no. 89). Dependence on God is not a passive robot-like reliance but one that leads to good works (the two-fold love of God and neighbor). “Greed” (harpagē, “rapacity, plunder,” v. 39) has no place in the person who washes “the inside” (to esōthen, v. 39) as well. “First clean the inside…so that the outside may become clean also” (its parallel in Mat 23:36).
Jesus gives then an example what a person with a clean “inside” does: “almsgiving” or better “act of kindness” for the Greek eleēmosynē (Luke 11:41). Such is the antithesis of greed. A little later, on another teaching about dependence on God (12:22-34), Jesus highlights further this social dimension: “Sell all your belongings and practice eleēmosynē” (v. 33).
External rituals like washing can be means to holiness but they can be also just like that or worse, an obsession, like a “punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy” as Pope Francis warns in Gaudate et Exsultate(no. 57).
A personal encounter with Jesus, like what that Pharisee was privileged with, is the best “rite of washing” to reach that end. What external act is more important than to encounter the “one who made the outside and the inside”?
One can relate this to the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-1), a chief tax collector and a rich man (v. 2). Luke may have intended this to be a contrast (Greek style of synkrisis) of his earlier story on the Pharisee in Luke 11. The Pharisee invites Jesus to dine with him while Zacchaeus is “invited” by Jesus. The Pharisee is perceived as righteous while Zacchaeus a “sinner” (19:7). The Pharisee is suspicious of Jesus’ actuation as a guest while Zacchaeus is moved by it: “Behold, half of my possession, Lord, I shall give to the poor and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over” (19:8). Even without the ritual washing before the meal, but a personal encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus proves himself to be the one whose “inside” is made clean.