DEUTERONOMY 4:1-2,6-8 JAMES 1:1-8, 21B-22 MARK 7:1-8, 14-15
The readings today are about commandments. The passage from Deuteronomy is a simple plea. Moses is giving his last instruction before the people pass over into the Promised Land. He reminds them of the commandments God gave them and encourages them to follow them closely. “You shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.” These commandments are to become the legal foundation of a new nation. They can be found in the book of Exodus, chapters 20 thru 24. In scope, these commandments extend way beyond the traditional ten. If you read these chapters you’ll see that they can clearly stand as a nation’s constitution, as its foundation for law and order. These laws united and transformed the twelve tribes. As Moses notes in his concluding remark, “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”
Our second reading, from the letter of James, reflects on the gift God has planted in our hearts. This is referring to the law. James exhorts his readers to not merely pay lip service to the law, but to move from the dictates of the law to positive action towards the needy. He enjoins the reader “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” In other words, these laws, placed in our hearts, are meant to make the world a better place.
In the gospel passage Jesus addresses the corrupting of the law. The Pharisees and some scribes have been closely monitoring Jesus and his disciples. “They observed that some of his disciples, ate their meals with unclean, that is unwashed hands.” When they pounced on this infraction of the law, Jesus’ response was swift and unequivocal.“Well did Isaiah prophecy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from
me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’”
This was a slap in the face of the religious leaders. They had placed the law under a microscope and identified every possible nuance of every law. Washing ones’ hands before eating is a matter of simple hygiene. The Pharisees made it a religious obligation. Ignoring this obligation was a sin in their eyes!
Jesus then moved his focus from the Pharisees and scribes. He declared to the crowd that nothing they ate or touched could make them unclean; only an unclean heart could make a person unclean. He then enumerated what hearts can spawn that makes people unclean to the world around them: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, licentiousness, blasphemy, arrogance, and folly.”
What can we learn from this scene? Jesus is teaching us to avoid interpreting divinely given commandments in a negative way – don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t be unchaste. He is inviting his disciples to stress the positive aspects of the commandments – be generous to the poor, help make the lives of others better, respect the body, yours and others, be positive and productive in your relationships, personal and business, try to build a solid and loving relationship with God.
Here’s some homework for you. Read chapters 20 thru 26 Exodus, Moses giving the commandments. Then read chapters 5 thru 7 in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus giving the beatitudes. A span of a thousand years of religious evolution separates these two documents. Can you see the evolution? Do you understand Jesus’ mission better by comparing the two? I’ll conclude with one additional thought that you might find helpful for your reflection. Moses was preparing the people to enter the Promised Land. Jesus was preparing the people for the Kingdom of God.