And you do many similar things” (Mark 7:13).
1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30; Mark 7:1-33
News of Pope Francis’ stated intention to visit South Sudan in 2022 with Justin Welby, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, coincides with the commemoration of Saint Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of victims of human trafficking. Bakhita, born in Sudan in 1869, was taken from her family as a child and sold into slavery. She suffered years of abuse before being rescued in Italy, then joined a religious community and dedicated herself to defending other victims. She died in 1947 and was canonized in 2000.
February 8 is the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Trafficking. Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken out against this widespread criminal abuse and exploitation, often directed against women and children, and especially against desperate immigrants and refugees. The scale of human trafficking today dwarfs the numbers involved in the slave trade of previous centuries and, like its predecessors, generates billions of dollars in profits.
In today’s reading from 1 Kings, Solomon prays for God’s blessing on the temple in Jerusalem, a symbol of God’s presence on earth. We say at baptism that we become temples of the Holy Spirit. This sacred designation makes any attack on the freedom and dignity of every human being an affront to God.
In today’s gospel, Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees who obsess over ritual practices like handwashing while ignoring the basic commandment of love. They use the law and their religious status to avoid supporting their parents financially by claiming that they serve God. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They speak of God but do not act for justice and compassion. They focus on legal thoroughness while being blind to the suffering of the poor. Who has unclean hands and unclean hearts when such obvious need is ignored?
Activists trying to end the open scandal of human trafficking are frustrated by the hypocrisy evident in the way it is moving smoothly in the global economy that benefits from the plight of workers promised jobs and then held in bondage , or young women trapped in deceptive recruitment who end up as prostitutes in criminal enterprises operating under the radar in most major US cities because it’s profitable and finds a willing market.
“The Word of God,” Hebrews 4:12 reminds us, “is like a two-edged sword” that cuts to the quick to reveal what we hide. Pope Francis does not hide his indignation at these crimes against the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters. Awareness and action are the only cure for an evil that cries out to heaven for accountability and redress.