Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–8
Psalm Psalm 15:2–5
Second Reading James 1:17–18, 21–22, 27
Gospel Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
Reading the Word
Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–8
So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lordyour God with which I am charging you.
You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lordour God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
James 1:17–18, 21–22, 27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly 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 human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “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.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Hearing the Word
“The Purpose of the Law”
The scripture of both Testaments frequently refers to the set of norms and regulations known as “the law”. Today’s readings shed light on the true purpose of this biblical law, andits relation to God and to faith.
The first reading contains the words of Moses as he prepared the people to “enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you”. He provides them with an extensive set of laws whose purpose was to ensure that they “long remain in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time” (Deut 4:40).
The biblical law had a special character. It was an articulation of the covenantalrelationship between God and the people established at Sinai. As such, it cannot be considered as merely a set of prohibitions, or a legal code in the modern sense. In the first place, the law was God’s special gift to the people he chose for himself. Legal codes of other nations usually contained rules on how to ensure that the gods the people believed in were pleased with those who worshiped them. The Israelite law was given by God because God was primarily concerned with ensuring the safety and prosperity of his people. The law was not meant to satisfy some arbitrary demands of a capricious God, but to guide the people to live wisely and successfully. Therefore Moses begins his speech, with a solemn call to “hear the law”, and observe it with the utmost attention and seriousness, knowing that the Israelites’ welfare in the promised land depended on it. Moreover, the peoples’ prosperity would also testify, before all nations, to the grandeur and benevolence, of the God who gave them the law by which to live. God’s greatness would be manifested through his peoples’ success. At the same time, the law was a way for the people to become great and universally admired. Their welfare was to be God’s glory, while God’s glory would be reflected in them. As such, the law was not a burdensome legal code, it was the constitution of God’s people. The law defined who they were, and outlined their way of life. In living by the law, the Israelites would ensure their prosperity and lasting possession of the land which God was givingthem.
The letter of James was composed by a Jewish-Christian, who wrote to believers who came from the same background. It contains numerous instructions and exhortations, in some ways resembling the book of Deuteronomy. Today, we read from its opening part, which lays the foundations for the entire letter.
The author states that in the same way as the Israeliteswere given the gift of the law, God, “the Father of lights” bestowed special gifts on Christians – gifts that are gratuitous and perfect. As in the case of Israel, the foremost among them is the gift of election – God made them the “first fruits of his creatures” through his word made known to them. From all of creation, believers are singled out as God’s chosen people. Such a unique status must be reflected through an impeccable life. There is no place for immoral practices, or any form of wickedness among them. Like the Israelites before them, Christians are to reflect God’s goodnessand holiness.
Believers become God’s people through “the word of truth”, which is the Gospel message. Consequently, their life of faith, their “religion”, must be that of “practitioners of the word”, who express their identity, through concrete actions of two kinds. First, they must show social concern, and practice charity through care for the underprivileged, and the most vulnerable in the community – widows and orphans. In the patriarchal system, the loss of male protection meant the loss of legal rights, and exposure to abuse. This was often the fate of widows and orphans. Second, they ought to keep themselves“unstained by the world”, which implies living by different moral and religious standards than those of the surrounding pagan society. Care for the rejected and marginalized would be one concrete sign of believers’ opposition to the social structures and practices of the day. Like the Israelites before them, the Christians are envisioned as a people with a special mission and a distinct identity. Their distinctiveness reflects the uniqueness of their God, while their actions transmit God’s perfect gifts to the world.
The Pharisees and the Scribes of Jesus’ day were known for their almost fanatical preoccupation with observing the law in minute detail. Wanting to be totally faithful to God, they developed a set of very detailed regulations. Regulations detailing how a faithful Israelite ought to fulfil God’s law given by Moses. These regulations were the “tradition of the elders.” A good example of just how detailed these instructions were, was the demand for ritual washing of the cups and plates before every meal. Thedisciples apparently violated some of these regulations. The leaders were scandalized and denounced the disciples to their teacher, Jesus. This gave Jesus an opportunity to present his views on how the law of God should be fulfilled.
Jesus did not violate or oppose the practice of the law. He was a faithful Jew who intended to fulfil the law. But he differed from the scribes and Pharisees on how the law was to be observed. While they focused and emphasized external behaviour, Jesus argued that the law ought to shape the heart. While the leaders focused on the ritual and legal aspects of the law, Jesus gave primacy to its moral and ethical dimensions. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus accused the leaders of hypocrisy. Their focus on external and ritual behaviour, with corresponding multiplication of minute rules, led them to obscure God’s purpose in giving the law to his people. As we saw in the first reading, the purpose of the law was to guide an Israelite towards a secure and prosperous life in the community of the covenantal people. The minute rules on washing and eating hardly served such a purpose.
Jesus offers his own interpretation of the law, pointing to the disposition of the heart as the centre from which both moral and immoral actions come. For him, uncleanness is not a matter of what one eats or touches. The categories of clean/unclean are defined by how a person touches others through his or her actions. True uncleanness comes from the human heart and adversely affects others, thus working against God’sdesign for human life.
The purpose of the law is to shape human life in a manner that reflects the divine Lawgiver, God. The law is meant to lead its adherents to a prosperous and blessed life in this world. It is meant to bring about human well-being. All three of today’s readings express this essential truth. Moses stated that his people can achieve greatness through the practice of the law. James indicates that by responding to God’s word, Christians will practice true religion, it will be “the law” for them. Jesus taught that the correct observance of the law is a matter of morality, rather than of ritual and legalistic practices. Those who understand this teaching, and follow it, are the ones whom the psalmist described as “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right”.
Listening to the Word of God
Today’s liturgy calls for reflection on the important theme of what shapes our behaviour in regard to ourselves, to God, and to others. We are reflecting on the purpose of law in our lives as citizens of our various countries, and above all as Christians.
First, we appreciate God’s love for us shown in giving us the gift of the law, and for reminding us about the purpose of this law. The law is meant to enhance our relationship with God, and build our faith in him. The law is God’s gift to those whom he has chosen, and, as Christians, we are indeed the chosen people of God, and we have a particular responsibility. In our African communities, there were norms which guided the lives of the people and brought order in every community. People had to live by the norms of their community in order to have harmony and a good life. A good person was considered to be the one who had a right relationship with God, ancestors, other members of the community and with nature. When a taboo was broken, there was disharmony in the community. So people tried to live well with God, ancestors, others, and the environment, so as to avoid any form of disharmony. This is exactly what the first reading from the book of Deuteronomy is reminding us about – to remember that the purpose of the law is to build harmony with God, who is the lawgiver, others, and, of course, the environment.
Second, our harmonious relationship with God should manifest itself in our lives, so that people may come to see God’s love through us. The second reading calls our attention to that fact. We are reminded to reflect God’s goodness by putting into practice the word of truth. This word of truth is the Gospel. For Christians, the Gospel becomes a new law replacing the one given by Moses on Sinai. If we put the teaching of the Gospel into practice, then we fulfil the law of Moses, and live by Christ’s law. For James, this implied always looking out for the vulnerable and underprivileged in our surroundings. We ought also to reach out to those who are marginalized, in our places of work, and to our school mates, who are being bullied, either physically, or on social media.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus led his contemporaries to a new understanding on how to practice God’s law. According to Jesus, the correct practice of the law does not focus on external rules and practice. The law is meant to shape the heart. The Baluba proverb says, “the skin of a leopard is beautiful but not his heart.” The love, mercy and goodness that we show to others, reflect God’s law working in our hearts. The heart is the seat of good and evil. The rules and regulations of the institutions where we are working, or studying, are meant to order our lives. The commandments in the scripture are meant to shape our hearts, so that we can truly reflect God’s love, compassion, and mercy. If the heart is properly shaped, all external behaviour will be right and fitting. Let us endeavour to see others straight from our hearts, so that we can truly radiate the goodness of God, wherever we are, and in whateverwe are called to do.
“The skin of a leopard is beautiful but not his heart.”
How do I respond to rules and regulations?
What specific aspects of the Gospel message do I follow in my daily life?
Response to God
During the week, I will be more attentive to how I relate with people, to determine if my actions flow from mere obedience to rules, orif they reflect God’s love.
Response to your World
I will identify one particular demand of the Gospel, andimplement it throughout this week in my actions.
We will invite a qualified person to our meeting with the aim of learning more about the biblical laws in the Old and New Testament, and the proper ways to observe them.
God our Father, we thank you for the gift of your law to us, which is there to be a guide for our return journey to you. Help us not to be discouraged with the slowness of reforms in our countries and places of work. Help us to reflect your goodness in all that we do. We make our prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.