GOD’S LAW COMES FIRST
Deut 4:1-2,6-8; Jas 1:17-18,21-22,27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
After meditating for five Sundays on the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, we now go back to the gospel of Mark, which we will be reading up to the end of the liturgical year. The question being raised is that of “purifications”, and the evangelist is inviting us to read it in the context of the multiplication of loaves: What purity is required to approach the Eucharistic Banquet? There are people who consider themselves good Christians because they practice certain rites and repeat certain devotions. The question is whether these exterior acts of religiosity determine purity. The readings of today provide a reply to this question and put us on our guard against the danger of placing on the same level the commandments of God and the traditions of people.
- THE LAW OF GOD TO HIS PEOPLE
During the formative years of the Israelite nation, God gave the people of Israel a number of laws to regulate their relationship with him and with one another. Those laws were mostly given through Moses, and they can be found in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The most important of all those laws is the DECALOGUE or the TEN COMMANDMENTS that we find enunciated in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.
But the scribes saw this written law as too vague to understand and should be put in details and so this gave rise to the second set of laws, the oral laws or oral traditions. One of them is ritual cleansing before eating and before praying. The reason behind these oral traditions was good, in order to make religion permeate every action of the day. But slowly this oral law began to degenerate into an activity of performing external rituals. You please God if you’re the law but you commit sin if you do not observe.
With the passage of time and with the growing sophistication of the nation of Israel, its leaders saw this written law as too vague to understand. Therefore, they found it necessary to enact numerous other rules and regulations to guide various aspects of people’s lives, in order to make religion permeate every action of the day. The fruit of their work was the growth a corpus of man-made laws to be kept by the people. The washing of hands and arms up to the elbow before eating was one of such laws. It was not merely a hygienic requirement. It was rather a religious prescription, something similar to what Muslims do before prayer. Thus, even if a person’s hands were already clean, he would still have to wash them before eating, on purely religious grounds. One was considered a good Jew, that is, a religious person, if he/she carried out these external observances, like washing of hands, “washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes”.
This is an example of how the spiritual leaders of Israel had deformed the law of God, that holy and sacred law that the book of Deuteronomy (C.f. today’s First Reading) had warned should never be altered. “You shall not add to the word which I command you, not take from it” (Deut 4:2). They had added to the commandments and subtracted from them, something which Moses, their own acclaimed authority, warned against in today’s first reading. Instead of endeavouring to understand and teach the law to the people (as their duty), the Scribes and Pharisees had transformed it into an endless set of rules and precepts, all of which infringe God’s laws. That was clearly a case of misplaced priorities, putting the cart before the horse.
- CHRIST TEACHES ABOUT THE LAW OF GOD
Jesus takes a very severe stand against any such deformation of religion which reduced it to a mere observance of multitude of laws. He states that God takes no interest in external cleanliness. He is not after formalism or the showy solemn liturgies held in the temple. Like the prophets of the Old Testament (Am 5:21-27; Is 1:11-20; 58:1-14), he severely condemns this “religious mockery”. He quotes Isaiah and says: “This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. Their reverence of me is worthless, the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments” (Mk 7:6).
Jesus strongly exhorts his listeners to move from a mere “decorative and ornamental” understanding of the Law towards a radically “transformative and life-changing” practice of the Law. Such understanding of the law insisted only on the strict ritualistic washing of vessels and cups and pots. But Jesus exhorts them to first cleanse the sinful vessels of their mind and the adulterous pots of their hearts. They insisted only on the austere cleansing of their hands. But Jesus exhorts them to first wash the defiled fingers of their duplicity and the dirtied palms of their pride.
Jesus draws attention to the need for purity of heart. He calls their attention to the fact that the rigorous observance of clear and well-defined norms gives people the feeling of having done their duty, of having secured God’s approval. God cannot accuse them of anything; their credit with God is good. Like the Pharisee praying in the temple: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” (Lk 18:9-14) or the labourers of the first hour (Mt 20:1-16), who make themselves slaves of the law by calculating their reward on the basis of the number of precepts they were able to keep, the number of hours they had toiled.
We live in a society that is obsessed with physical health! You may watch very carefully what you put into your body. You may have eliminated caffeine, sugar, gluten, chocolate and all kinds of other good tasting things (in which case you are probably one miserable person). You may get every vaccine known to man. We monitor what goes into our body in the interest of health. It is good to care for our bodies. Jesus however, says none of these things impact our spiritual health. In fact, it is humorous that he says what we take into our mouth will inevitably come out in “the sewer” (in the toilet). These things may not be best for us, but they do not defile us spiritually. What defiles us spiritually is what comes out of the heart. If we were as diligent about guarding our hearts as we are about guarding what we put into our bodies, we would be much better off. Let us not miss the list that comes next: For from the heart come: fornication, murder, theft, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, slander, envy, pride, folly, etc. These are what defile you.
Jesus further touches on SIN which flows from the interior of our hearts. He mentions that they affect our society. Some people, today, think that it is no longer fashionable to refer to sin. Contrary to the Pharisees and Scribes who have a scrupulous concern for sin, many people, today, want to explain sin away. It is amazing that in every area of life people expect rules and regulations except in religion. And yet God says, “Israel, hear the statutes and decrees I am teaching you to observe, that you may live” (Deut 4:1). God did not give us TEN SUGGESTIONS. He gave us TEN COMMANDMENTS. We go on breaking them, but we can never get rid of them, for they are written in our consciences. If we disobey them, the disaster will be greater than neglecting the rules of the Highway Code when riding a bicycle. Laws of God are good and necessary, for they are the expression of God’s loving concern and constant presence. However, we are expected to live by the commandments and not die by them. We will die by them if there is no love in our hearts when observing them, for love of God is the ROOT, and love of neighbour is the FRUIT.
- A SPIRITUALITY OF AVOIDANCE
the mindset and behavour of the Pharisees and the scribes gives rise to what we may call spirituality of avoidance. Their focus is on ritual observances. Their complaint about eating with unwashed hands has nothing to do with personal hygiene, as earlier said. They are interested in the ritual washing of hands which was an institution meant to avoid the presumed impurity of Gentiles from contaminating the ritual purity of Jews. By not observing the ceremony the disciples of Jesus are blurring the distinction between Jews and Gentiles and behaving as if the two were one. Jesus defends this spirituality of inclusion with outsiders in very unmistakable terms: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:14-15).
Jesus condemns the entire structure of this religious homophobia, the fear and avoidance of people who are different from us. Gentiles do not defile Jews any more than Jews defile Gentiles. Nothing and nobody outside a person can defile a person. If in the presence of someone or something you smell defilement, chances are that you brought the defilement with you in the first place. You need look no further than within your own heart and soul. A clean-minded person sees nothing but cleanness everywhere, in everything and in everyone. We might indeed expand a famous beatitude of Jesus as follows: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God everywhere, in everything and in everyone” (Matthew 5:8). No wonder Jesus did not hesitate to touch a leper, to eat with sinners and to let an “unclean” woman touch him. He got so involved with bad people that they nicknamed him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:9).
- CHRIST CAME NOT TO ABOLISH THE LAW, BUT TO FULFIL IT.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the Prophets; I have come to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). Interiority is what the Lord wants and not mere external observance of the law, while one’s heart is far from being honest, pure, and steadfast unto the Lord. For as Jesus says, it is from men’s heart that evil intentions emerge. “Love is the fullness of the law” (Rom 13:10). The spirit of the law takes precedence over the letter of the law. Keeping God’s commandments in the manner that he requires is a sign of love for him. “If you love me, keep my commandments.” (Jn 14:15). The primary business we have, then, is to keep our hearts clean.
The counter-attack of Jesus on the Pharisees and Scribes (for attacking him in the first place) is also a lesson and reminder for us to examine our attitudes in life and to make the necessary change.
- Have I adopted a “decorative and ornamental” understanding of being a Christian, and just be happy to be “called as a Christian”, enjoying some of the privileges and comforts that come along with it? Or do I allow God’s Gospel to powerfully effect changes in me?
- Am I just satisfied with “external cleanliness” – either in just being neat and tidy or in looking glamorous and fashionable or in being constantly bothered only with my external looks? Or do I take steps to cleanse my heart of all sinful tendencies and to allow the rivers of God’s grace to wash away my inner defilements?
- Sin is a deep reality of our lives, whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not. Am I being satisfied with just remaining a Christian and “appearing” to be a Follower of Christ, with some basic Church obligations fulfilled? Or do I truly open my heart to allow God’s spirit to “heal me from within” of all my evil tendencies and social negligence?
Jesus’ teaching completes ‘the law’ by reminding us to observe the Lord’s commands and not some human regulations or traditions. He calls to worship from the heart. Let us make it a point to come to God’s house with a heart that is focused on the Lord. Let us guard against being the person who talks a good game but who never has his/her heart engaged. There are several ways to do this:
- Get enough sleep (We need to be composed).
- Begin preparing for Mass at home by getting your mind in the right place (Read the texts of the day before hand).
- Take a few quiet moments during the Mass prelude to consciously enter God’s presence.
- Pay attention to the words of songs
- Follow along in your Bible (Lectionary)
- Take notes (where necessary)
- Take what you learn with you to your home, into the world, and
The Pharisees and teachers of the Law were not bad guys, you know. They were however men who were headed in the wrong direction. They allowed their rules and opinions to rule over the Word of God rather than the other way around. Jesus calls us not to be religious, but to be holy. He calls us to follow him rather than encourage people to follow us. He calls us to a deep relationship rather than a shallow one. If we will listen to what he says, we will be delivered from superficial and dead religious actions and instead enter a vibrant, rewarding and even fun relationship with the Lord who loves us more than we can begin to imagine.