Homily for the 23nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
5 September 2021
It’s Father’s Day and we have completed our detour through the bread of life narrative in John’s gospel. We’re back on track with Mark’s gospel, ready to follow Jesus all the way to his passion and death. In today’s gospel, Jesus first of all engages in some testy exchanges with the Pharisees and scribes who wonder why his disciples don’t respect the tradition of the elders. Rather these disciples of his eat their food with unclean hands. His interlocutors are focused on tradition, regulations, ritual and social expectations. They’re not evil people. But they are seeking certainty in life. They’re sufficiently sure of themselves as to set down laws and expectations for others. They’re those religious types who are most righteous when they are making adverse judgments of others. They have been thrown off-centre by Jesus who doesn’t seem tied to these regulations and rituals. He is not daunted by their judgments or by their learning. Though standing alone as he takes them on, he dares to call them hypocrites. He invokes their tradition by quoting the prophet Isaiah suggesting that the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.
Then he calls all the people to him and gives them the simple message that it’s not what you eat that makes you unclean; rather it’s what you do. If you do wrong, if you intend evil, then you will be unclean. It’s not about what ritual you keep or what company you keep.
From here Jesus heads off on a journey outside of Galilee. He heads off into Gentile territory – what those Pharisees and scribes would have regarded as unclean country. Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne says that “Jesus’ breaking through the ‘clean/unclean’ barrier in a legal and theological sense opens the way for his physical ‘breaking out’ into the formally ‘unclean’ Gentile regions in the scenes that follow.” None of us lives in a hermetically sealed and clean environment. We live in a world of mess, complexity and diversity. It’s not a matter of what company we keep or what social mores we follow. Nothing outside of us makes us unclean. It’s what comes out of us that makes us unclean. What’s in your heart? Is your heart big enough for others? Is your heart open to others? Or is your heart closed and centred on self?
Most of us probably plead innocence to the first four items in Jesus’ catalogue of nasties: “fornication, theft, murder, and adultery”. But what about “avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride and folly”? It’s not a matter of washing dishes, eating only clean foods, and keeping only clean company. Even in the cleanest company, perhaps especially in the cleanest company, we are capable of envy, slander, pride and folly. I’ve experienced a touch of those things in the church hierarchy and in my own religious order. The big mistake of the Pharisees and scribes was to think that they could render themselves absolutely clean just by their own efforts – “washing their arms as far as the elbow”; sprinkling themselves “on returning from the market place”; and following special observances for “the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes”. Jesus does not restrict his call to those who are clean. He calls us to follow him in our uncleanness. He invites us to open our hearts to scrutiny. The Jesus approach rather than that of the Pharisees and scribes better helps us celebrate Father’s Day.
We’d all admit that Father’s Day doesn’t have the same unalloyed touch of grace and joy in our society as Mother’s Day. Why is that? MensLine Australia is a telephone and online counselling service offering support for Australian men. MensLine says “Father’s Day can be a difficult and confronting time.” They give “some tips on how to cope on Father’s Day, whether you’re a dad, step-parent, partner or family member”. They say, “It would be nice to think that Father’s Day is cause for celebration — and for many dads and families it is. For many others though it’s just not that simple. Perhaps there’s family separation or breakdown; death or loss; a disrupted, difficult, dysfunctional or absent relationship between dad and family; illness or injury; or a multitude of other possibilities.”
I decided to consult the Australian Institute of Family Studies. In the 2016 census, there were just over 6 million families in Australia. Just over a third of those families were couples with dependent children. 10% of them were one-parent families with dependent children.
The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children found that children who live with mother and father in their first year of life spend on average 38 minutes a day alone with their father, and 294 minutes alone with their mother. Between the age of 8 and 9, these children spend on average 55 minutes alone with their father, and 183 minutes alone with their mother.
When a mother and father separate, the mother takes sole responsibility for the childcare in 27% of cases. The father takes sole responsibility in only 2% of cases. The mother takes the majority of responsibility for childcare in 46% of cases. The father takes the majority of responsibility for childcare in just 3% of cases. In only 21% of cases is there roughly equal shared care time.
We all know the perils of damn lies and statistics. But I think these figures give us a sense of why Father’s Day is more fraught for us as a society than is Mother’s Day.
Those of us who have been blessed in life with loving, present fathers give thanks for them. Those of us who have carried extra burdens imposed by distant or absent fathers ask for the blessing of forgiveness and understanding. There will be some hearing this homily who find it difficult to address or envisage God as Father precisely because of their adverse experience with their own fathers. But even they can resonate with the insight of John Henry Newman in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent where he writes about the voice of conscience and “the One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear”:
[I]f, on doing right, we enjoy the same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing, satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving praise from a father, we certainly have within us the image of some person, to whom our love and veneration look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for whom we yearn, towards whom we direct our pleadings, in whose anger we are troubled and waste away. These feelings in us are such as require for their exciting cause an intelligent being: we are not affectionate towards a stone, nor do we feel shame before a horse or a dog.”
That intelligent being, our God, is indeed our Father, the Father of us all. Those who are fathers whether loving and present or distant and absent might draw heart from the prayer and greeting Pope Francis offered to all fathers in St Peter’s Square on the feast of St Joseph in 2014:
“Best wishes, best wishes to you on your day! I ask for you the grace to be ever closer to your children, allow them to grow, but be close, close! They need you, your presence, your closeness, your love. May you be for them as St Joseph was: guardians of their growth in age, wisdom and grace. May you guard them on their journey: be educators and walk with them. And by this closeness you will be true educators. Thank you for all you do for your children: thank you. …. May St Joseph bless you and accompany you. Some of us have lost our dad, he has passed away, the Lord has called him; many in this square do not have their dad still with them. We can pray for all the fathers of the world, for the fathers living and deceased, as well as our own, and we can do it together, each one remembering his or her own father whether he be living or dead. And let us pray to the great Father of us all, the Father.”
Happy Father’s Day to all our fathers. And a special shout out to my own 93 year old Dad in lockdown in Sydney.
 Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, St Pauls, 2008, p.121
 See https://mensline.org.au
 Australian Institute of Family Studies, ‘Fathering in Australia among couple families with young children’, Family Matters No. 88, August 2011, available at https://aifs.gov.au/publications/family-matters/issue-88/fathering-australia-among-couple-families-young-children
 Australian Institute of Family Studies, ‘Parenting arrangements after separation’, October 2019, available at
 John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Burns, Oates and Co, London, 1874, p. 109
 Pope Francis, General Audience, 19 March 2014, available at https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2014/documents/papa-francesco_20140319_udienza-generale.html
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).