Readings: Dt 4:1-12,6-8; Jas 117-18,21-22,27; Mk 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23
“You disregard God’s commandments but cling to human traditions.” The gospel this Sunday focuses on a dispute between Jesus, the Pharisees and scribes on the true meaning of God’s law. All 3 readings focus attention on the essentials of the law, namely the relation between personal holiness and observance of the Law, not the details. At the end of the day what matters most is inner personal holiness, rather than the scrupulous external observance of the law. The readings therefore remind us that it is not a matter of knowing or doing the small details of the law, but rather it is a question of entering into an authentic relationship with the God. The three readings together give a balanced approach to the law. In the first reading from Deuteronomy, Moses presents the statutes and decrees of the Lord in a positive way. He teaches the people that by observing the decrees of the Lord, they will live and occupy the land the Lord is giving them. He also warns the people that they must not add nor subtract from God’s law and teaching. God’s law basically consists of three parts: doctrinal teaching, moral teaching and prayer. The best criterion of every law however is the greatest law: love of God and love of neighbour. The second reading from the letter of James neatly summarises this point in terms of relating personal holiness of life to the care of the needy. We must put into action what God tells us. St. James summarizes this point well: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and able to save your souls”. In other words, our inner life must overflow into the service of others.
In the Gospel passage from Mark, Jesus takes issue with the legalism and hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees. Instead of focusing on the essentials, they focus on the details of the law. When asked by the Scribes and Pharisee why He and his disciples did not observe the law of washing their hands before eating, Jesus contradicts their notion that external rituals such as washing hands and abstaining from certain foods have anything to help change the human heart for better. On the contrary, inner moral pollution comes from within the human heart. Deuteronomy helps us capture this truth when it says “the human heart is devious from youth” (Deut 6:5). The gospel therefore invites us to develop a radical self-honesty, necessary to recognize within ourselves the tendencies that come from our hearts, and thus in need of God’s grace to combat these tendencies. It is that self-knowledge that helps us to name, claim and tame the wild streak within that threatens our openness to God’s gift of life and love. We are invited to joyfully live what Jesus teaches us through the Church, not with legalism but out of a deep intimate relationship with the Father, so that we may find life and salvation, in Jesus Christ. The message from the readings this Sunday is threefold: 1) At the end of the day what matters most is inner personal holiness, rather than the scrupulous external observance of the law. 2) The best criterion of every law is the Greatest Commandment: love of God and love of neighbour, expressed in terms of relating personal holiness to the care of the needy. 3) Genuine holiness is transformative and overflows into the service of others, particularly the less fortunate, which is always an overflow of our inner relationship with God.
©2018 John S. Mbinda