22nd Sunday in ordinary time, August 29 (year B) Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15; James 1: 17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The teaching of Deuteronomy left no room for maneuver.
The very survival and prosperity of the Israelites in the land they entered depended on one thing: the careful and conscientious observance of the ordinances and statutes of God.
This would be a proof of their loyalty to God and would make an impression on other nations. These nations would marvel at the wisdom and discernment of the Israelites, whose faithfulness would ensure that God was always near and ready to help them.
They were warned not to add anything to these ordinances and statutes, nor to subtract anything. Most of these laws were aimed at building a just and humane society.
Standards have been established for the conduct of business, agriculture, personal conduct and human relations. Arrangements have been made for the protection and care of vulnerable, poor and marginalized people.
Most of them make sense even today. But there were also many regulations regarding sacrifice, worship, and purity. Today some of them seem confusing and sometimes harsh. We must remember, however, that they made sense in their original context three millennia ago.
These laws and ordinances formed a discipline that bound people together and defined who they were. They were also an outward sign of their loyalty and obedience to God.
Today, many standards, expectations, customs and regulations have disappeared or been challenged – and often for legitimate reasons.
Many human rules and traditions are interwoven with what comes from God. But we cannot exist as a community without a spiritual center and culture that unites us to each other and to God. Doing so encourages disintegration and sometimes extremism.
We are disciples of Jesus together, as a community rather than a loose confederation of spiritual freelancers.
Anything we decide to define ourselves as God’s people should be embraced willingly and happily as a sign of our faithful relationship with God.
This relationship with God is very simple; it is we who make it difficult and complicated. James defines pure and undefiled religion as generosity and love: caring for widows and orphans and the poor and vulnerable. As part of this commitment, he adds the need to keep oneself spiritually pure.
The word of God that has been planted in our souls can only do its work when it is nourished and used.
James leaves us a very good advice: be actors of the word, not just those who hear and do nothing. Our religious faith is a verb, not a noun. Love must always be expressed in deeds.
There is always a danger in religious observances and this Gospel account describes it well. Human traditions and customs are often deified and treated as doctrine. All religions are guilty of it.
People keep doing things without really understanding the reason or what a custom or practice means. The real purpose of the law is easily forgotten: it is mercy and justice. In the argument about purifying vessels and washing hands before eating, Jesus challenged his listeners to ask themselves a few questions.
Where does impurity come from?
Jesus insisted that it was not from food or anything other than the body. He focused on the human heart as the source of all evil and malicious intentions and thoughts. They eventually take shape: sexual immorality, theft, murder, greed, envy, pride, slander and madness, to name a few.
A person from whom these things come is defiled, but by his own inner disposition. This is the source of the problem, and it should be at the center of all purification efforts.
People need to cleanse the temple from their hearts and minds. The rules and traditions are there to remind us of this. When we forget this basic principle, it often happens that we start projecting our own impurities and darkness on other people, groups and institutions. It’s hard to come to terms with at first, but often others aren’t the problem – we are.
There is a law that must never be broken or set aside, and that is the law of love.