Jesus’ words in this Sunday’s Gospel are scathing. Perhaps it was because the issue he is addressing is more than about a detail of ritual observance. Those who were leaders in Israel should have been helping the people to live according to the ways of God – so that they would be “a light to the nations”, as the prophets had taught. Instead the Pharisees and scribes had lost sight of Israel’s great destiny, and worked against it, in fact, by elaborating a system of self-serving regulations. They have no real concern for the ways of God, Jesus tells them, and he quotes against them the words of Isaiah: “This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me”. Jesus shows himself a true interpreter of Israel’s faith as he urges his followers to find integrity through the motives of the heart rather than in the observance of external rituals of purification. No wonder the people followed him so eagerly.
“Less lip and more heart” could be the moral of this Sunday’s Gospel. It is also good advice for prayer. Real prayer life begins for many in recognising God in the heart, in the desire to be with God. Most people associate prayer with vocal prayers, or prayers that they learned at school. These are a perfectly good form of prayer but care must be taken that these vocal prayers don’t get in the way of prayer! God gave us two ears but only one heart and one mouth to show us that we should listen twice as much as we speak. God knows what is in our hearts even before we start praying. He knows what we need before we even ask. And so, use your lips less, and your ears and heart more.