TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2021)
Readings:Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8Psalms 15:2-5James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Life everywhere is governed and conditioned by laws and precepts and traditions. It is obvious that these laws and precepts and traditions vary from place to place, something so clearly obvious as we watched the Taliban take over Afganistan this week. Any place not governed by laws, like the Wild West of old, was considered dangerous and unruly. Most often laws and traditions are beneficial to maintaining a sense of order; they prevent chaos from taking over. But it is not impossible that laws and traditions, hopelessly frozen in time, can stifle the ordinary creativity which can help institutions and communities remain relevant in ever-changing times.
For the Jewish people the Law, or “Torah,” governed their lives, and that Torah not only consisted of the first five books of the Old [First] Testament, but it also included the 613 precepts of the Talmud, precepts gleaned from many of the other Old Testament books and from the legal and religious discussions of thousands of rabbis over centuries. The first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy describes Moses speaking of the “statutes and decrees” which the Israelites are enjoined to “observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers is giving you.” The statutes are not meant to be stifling! Rather, they are meant to give life, and they give testimony to the closeness of “the Lord, our God.” Indeed, they give such testimony because the laws and decrees are “just,” says Deuteronomy. Were laws to become ‘unjust,’ it would be safe to assume that they are no longer capable of giving “life.”
It is clear from all four gospels that at the time of Jesus many of the Scribes and Pharisees were noted for their rigidity, intolerance, and hypocrisy. The gospels recount numerous incidents leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion when the friction between the Scribes and Pharisees was palpable. Their incessant worry about the letter of the Law leaves them looking unreasonable, if not inhuman, and their misplaced desire for “places of honor” and “wider phylacteries” betrays an undue concern for appearances rather than a concern about the contents of their hearts.
Today’s gospel passage comes from about the middle of Mark’s gospel, a time when the Pharisees and Scribes were searching for reasons to discredit this preacher from Nazareth. The absence of ablutions in the gospel has less to do with hygiene and more to do with religion. “Hand washing” before eating, like the “purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds,” was proscribed by the Talmud. Jesus’ ‘earthy’ band of apostles, who were constantly on “the road,” might surely have been accustomed to not always vigorously washing their hands before eating, something that travel in any age makes more difficult. Regardless, Jesus recognizes that the Pharisees and Scribes are less concerned about “keeping the tradition of the elders,” and more interested in finding something they can complain about and use to convince people to abandon their faith in Jesus. Had Jesus ignored their grousing the Pharisees might have had less occasion to be genuinely troubled, but Jesus uses the occasion to make a less than subtle point.
Jesus doesn’t mince words, and immediately calls the Pharisees and Scribes out as “hypocrites,” using the words of the prophet Isaiah to condemn them: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine human precepts.” The Law of Deuteronomy so carefully taught by the Scribes and Pharisees was no longer capable of imparting life, and Jesus broadens His attack to include the dietary regulations which were many, and which suggested that certain foods were capable of making one unclean. Jesus clearly departs from the “traditions of the elders,” stating bluntly that “nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”
The Scribes and Pharisees were not unique to the Jewish faith. Organized religion of any kind can lose sight of what really matters, and put too much emphasis on externals. Not infrequently our own Catholic faith has been more worried about individual words, pious customs, attendance at Mass, and holy days of obligation, than about what comes from the hearts of individual Catholics: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” The statutes and decrees of our own faith are meant to guide us and form us, helping us to be more conformed to the God we worship, causing others “to know we are Christians by our love.”
Jesus will tell us elsewhere that “He has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law.” Indeed, in His person all that the laws and precepts of the Jewish people had hoped to accomplish are accomplished in Jesus. At the heart of the Law, any law, is the life-giving love that is Jesus, the origin of all love. Even civil laws or mandates exist for the common good of all, not just a select few, and in that common good is a sign of the love God has for us, a love made especially manifest in His Son Jesus, a love which is meant to transform us and make us into “other Christs.”