Last week I never got around to posting a commentary at all–many apologies for that. However, all the more reason to check out my collected commentaries in print, available from Emmaus Road publishers here.
This week we make the shift from John 6 and its Eucharistic theme (which has occupied us for the past five weeks) back to reading through Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus. In today’s Gospel, we encounter Jesus’ challenging and demanding teaching on the nature of God’s law.
It’s commonly thought that Jesus came to make things easier on everyone, and relax the moral laws that the Pharisees kept so rigidly. So the Pharisees become the image of hated religious conservatives, people who think that there actually is right and wrong which doesn’t evolve with changing times.
The truth is a little more complicated. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus teaches on the nature of God’s Law. It is not that God’s Law is not demanding or that it changes with time. God’s Law, however, does not consist primarily in do’s and don’ts of external behavior, as important as that can be. It is primarily a rule of the soul, a guide for our interior person, which then reflects itself in our actions.
1. Our First Reading is from the introductory chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy.
Let’s understand the context. Deuteronomy is the last of the Five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch). It is situated as a series of speeches that Moses delivered to the people of Israel on the Plains of Moab, forty years after they had left Mt. Sinai. In the intervening forty years, Israel had rebelled against God at least ten times while wandering in the wilderness, as recorded in the Book of Numbers. None of the original generation of Israelites who experienced the Exodus and the giving of the law at Sinai were still alive. With the exception of Moses himself and his assistant, Joshua, the elder generation had died out, and the nation now consisted of the children who had been raised in the desert.
Moses now commissions this second generation, and impresses upon them the fact that they, too, are parties to the covenant with God. For that reason he employs some homiletical rhetoric, insisting that it “Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day” (Deut 5:3). That is not literally true, but Moses employs hyperbole to drive home the point that this second generation must “own” the covenant and embrace its responsibilities.
The first eleven chapters of Deuteronomy are a long, exhortational introduction to a law code that extends from Deut 12 through 26. This law code reiterates earlier laws from Exodus through Numbers, but also augments them with adjustments and amendments. In particular, the laws of Deuteronomy sometimes seem harsher in their punishments, especially for the offenses of idolatry, sexual immorality, and rebellion against authority. These were behaviors in which the Israelites indulged on more than one occasion during the wilderness wanderings, and such behavior was disastrous for the health of the community. Also, the new laws introduced in Deuteronomy sometimes permit or even command things that were never mentioned or allowed before, such as divorce (Deut 24:1-4) and aggressive warfare against the Canaanites (Deut 7). These changes in the law were not due to the righteousness of the people of Israel, but due to their hardness of heart (Matt 19:8). That is, Moses adapted some of the particulars of the law to accommodate the recalcitrant attitude of the people, demonstrated by their rebellions in the wilderness.
Our First Reading comes from the introductory chapters:
Reading 1 Dt 4:1-2, 6-8
Moses said to the people:
“Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees
which I am teaching you 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.
In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin upon you,
you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.
Observe them carefully,
for thus will you give evidence
of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations,
who will hear of all these statutes and say,
‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’
For what great nation is there
that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us
whenever we call upon him?
Or what great nation has statutes and decrees
that are as just as this whole law
which I am setting before you today?”
Some of the particulars of this passage deserve comment:
“Hear the statutes … that you may live …”
Moses reminds the people that the purpose of the Divine law is for our good, so that we “may live” and not die—what we call today “human flourishing.” Sexual promiscuity is not forbidden because God doesn’t want us to have fun. Sexual promiscuity destroys the life of a community. It spreads disease (In fact, STD transmission rates are rising rapidly in the US: https://bit.ly/2PLZVz8). It results in unwanted children, children produced in temporary unions between people who really don’t love each other and aren’t committed to each other lifelong. These children are then killed in the womb or outside of it, or else abandoned, or else sold as slaves (in antiquity, but even in some places today), or raised by only one parent and thus suffer the sense of loss (usually of their father) and the material poverty associated with single-parent families. Even if promiscuity doesn’t result in children, it undermines marriage by encouraging a culture and mind-set of sexual self-indulgence which is totally at odds with the mind-set of faithfulness to one person for life which is necessary for successful and loving marriage and child-raising. So God’s law is given “that we may live”: that people may be healthy in body and soul, that marriages may be successful and happy, that children may be raised by both their parents lifelong, etc. God’s law is ordered to human life, to human flourishing.
“you shall not add to what I command or subtract from it …”
Moses tries to forestall the human tendency to subvert God’s law either by diluting it with numerous additions (“you shall not add”) or simply by ignoring or suppressing parts of it (“or subtract.”) As we will see in the Gospel reading, the Pharisees engaged in this practice, adding many additional regulations to the law without carefully distinguishing divine law from human accretions. Furthermore, their additional regulations often created moral “loopholes” that enabled persons to avoid the demands of divine morality.
“what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law …”
In the light of Christ’s teaching, we see that Moses’ law contained imperfections in the form of accommodations to the rebelliousness of the people. Nonetheless, even in its accommodated form, the Law of Moses surpassed all the law codes of the nations of the ancient Near East in the heights of its moral teaching. In Deuteronomy, it is clearly set forth, for the first time in human history, that love is the heart of the moral law: “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). This is because God first love his people (Deut 7:7-8). Ultimately the moral law is the guide to relationship of mutual love between God and his people.
2. Our responsorial Psalm praises the one who obeys God’s law:
Responsorial Psalm Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5
R. (1a) One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice;
who thinks the truth in his heart
and slanders not with his tongue.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who harms not his fellow man,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
by whom the reprobate is despised,
while he honors those who fear the LORD.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who lends not his money at usury
and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
shall never be disturbed.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
This Psalm emphasizes themes from the First Reading. We see the connection between moral law and life. “The one who does justice will live ….” We also see indication that the law is not simply about exterior actions but also about interior movements of the heart. So the just man “thinks the truth in his heart.” Both sin and virtue begin in the heart and mind of men. Later, the thoughts become expressed in action. So life-giving behavior begins with control of the interior life, with regulation of one’s thoughts and feelings. Jesus will drive this home in the Gospel.
3. The Second Reading is from the Epistle of James. James is one of the New Testament writers whose style and pattern of thought is most like that of the Old Testament. In particular, James stands strongly in the tradition of the “wisdom literature.” His teaching calls to mind the style and principles of such books as Proverbs and Sirach, and also our Lord’s own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). In fact, there are an impressive list of parallels between the teaching of James and the Sermon on the Mount. It seems that James—whom tradition holds to be James the Lesser, cousin of Jesus—was careful to stay close to the manner of teaching of his kinsman, the Messiah.
Reading 2 Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Dearest brothers and sisters:
All good giving and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.
He willed to give us birth by the word of truth
that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you
and is able to save your souls.
Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their affliction
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only,” James reminds us, so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that righteousness consists in knowing a lot about the Bible or about God. Knowing things is great, but worth very little if it doesn’t change our behavior.
James also reminds us that God’s law is a “good gift” coming down from the “the Father of lights.” A father loves his children. He loves us enough to “give us birth by the word of truth.” This word does not change, because God does not evolve: in him “there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.”
4. Having completed five weeks of study on the Eucharistic Discourse in John 6, we return this Sunday to continuous reading of the Gospel of Mark. Our passage is a highly edited excerpt from Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees over the customs of the elders:
Gospel Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem
gathered around Jesus,
they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals
with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.
—For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews,
do not eat without carefully washing their hands,
keeping the tradition of the elders.
And on coming from the marketplace
they do not eat without purifying themselves.
And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed,
the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. —
So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him,
“Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders
but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
“Well did Isaiah prophesy 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.
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
He summoned the crowd again and said to them,
“Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.
“From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Let’s get one thing clear: Jesus is not mad at the Pharisees because they are overly scrupulous about obeying God’s law. He is upset with them because they “disregard God’s commandment.” Instead they cling to “human tradition.” The Pharisaic tradition had “added to” the laws of Moses in contradiction to what Moses commanded above. Still, these additional customs—like washing hands before every meal—would have been relatively benign or even helpful were it not for the fact that the Pharisees had become fixated on observing these customs to the neglect of the central commandments and principles of the law, things like “justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23).
Jesus wants to call the Pharisees—and us—back from a fixation on external observance to a focus on the heart of the law, which is the proper ordering of the soul.
Actually, fixation on external observance of anything is not a temptation of our age. The contemporary temptation is unconcern with either appearances or interior reality.
In the Old Testament, there were many things that could ritually defile a person: contact with the dead, with feces, with an unclean (inedible) animal, etc. This was a kind of pedagogy, by which God taught Israel to associate moral wrongdoing with death, decay, and the distasteful. In the end, wrongdoing (sin) does actually result in these things.
However, the point of the law was to teach the right ordering of the soul. Ultimately, however, it is the interior act of the soul (what comes out of the heart) and not what materially happens to the body that “defiles” or “profanes” a person in the sight of God.
It is worth discussing the various sins that “come out of the heart of a man” according to Jesus:
hoi dialogismoi hoi kakoi “evil thoughts” or “evil deliberations,” a very general term.
porneiai, “sexual immoralities,” a general term for any illicit sexual act, which is to say, any act outside of marriage, including but not limited to sexual fantasizing, masturbation, fornication (sex between two unmarried persons), adultery, prostitution (paying for sexual acts), lewdness, etc.
klopai, “thefts,” from the same root from which we derive “kleptomaniac.”
phonoi, “murders,” intentional killing of an innocent person.
moicheiai, “adulteries,” specifically a man engaging in intercourse with a woman who is married to another man.
pleonexiai, “greeds, avarices,” ‘a strong desire to acquire more and more material possessions or to possess more things than other people have, all irrespective of need’ (Louw & Nida)
poneriai, “evils,” a general term, related to the term for the Devil, ‘o poneros, the “Evil One.”
dolos, “deception, trickery, falsehood.”
aselgeia, “godlessness,” living without any prayer, worship, or thought of God, living in a manner oblivious to God’s existence
ophthalmos poneros, “evil eye,” probably meaning covetousness in this context, that is, looking upon the goods of another with evil intent
blasphemia, “blasphemy,” a verbal attack on a person’s reputation or dignity, whether a human or divine person.
huperephania, “pride, arrogance, haughtiness,” ostentatious display of self-aggrandizement
aphrosune, “foolishness,” close to “without thought, thoughtlessness, mindlessness”
All these interior acts of the soul are what distance a person from God and make them “unclean,” “defiled,” or “profane” in God’s eyes. It is more important to eliminate these interior acts—and the exterior acts that follow from them!—out of our lives than it is to observe time-honored cultural customs.
However, a moment’s thought makes clear that it is not less difficult but more difficult to eliminate things like “evil thoughts,” “pride,” and “covetousness” from our souls than it is to remember to wash our hands before eating. Regulations about exterior cleanliness are much easier to keep than purity of soul.
So let us not think for one minute that Jesus came to dumb down the moral law and give permission for everyone to do as they like provided they believe in him. Our Lord is quite clear about the seriousness of sin, and clearly identifies its source: the human heart.
Is there any hope for us? Yes! Because God is also the great heart doctor. As St. Paul will later explain: “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Having received the Holy Spirit through Baptism, we have divine power residing in us which enables us to truly love God (which Moses already identified as the heart of the law) and our neighbor. The infilling love of God cleanses our hearts from the twelve different kinds of “evil deliberations” that Jesus listed in our Gospel reading. As the author of Hebrews says, alluding to Baptism: “our hearts [are] sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.”
If we have defiled ourselves after Baptism, there is the “second Baptism” of the confessional, to which we can have recourse this week.
At this Mass and in this coming week, let’s try to “humbly welcome the Word” of God that has come to us at this Mass. Let’s do an examination of conscience on the twelve kakoi dialogismoi that Jesus enumerated. Let’s spend time in prayer asking God to stir up the Spirit within us so that love will flow out of heart, not defiling evil.