THE LAW OF GOD AND THE HEART OF MAN
Readings Deuteronomy 4:1-2.6-8; Psalm 15; James 1:17-18.21-27 and Mark 7:1-8.14-15.21-23.
It is obvious covid-19 has taught us many life lessons, one of which is the importance of proper hygiene. Although we seem to be relaxed at the moment, the practice of constantly washing and sanitizing our hands have come to stay in our society due to its enforcement in the wake of this global health threat. With this practice, we recall the Jewish laws on purity and impurity as they reflect in today’s liturgy, which offer us orientations on the observance of the Law.
In the first reading, Moses admonishes the Israelites on the ten commandments of God, not to interfere with it, nor modify it. He enjoined them to obey and keep the Law. He had reminded Israel of their many rebellions against God in the wilderness. Now, as they were ready to enter into the Promised Land, he wanted them to think about the need to adhere to the commandments in the light of their past rebellions. In view of this, Moses said, “Now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances which I teach you and do them… you shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it…”
The commandments are otherwise known as the Torah (meaning to teach), which are the first part of the Jewish Bible, that is, the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch. It is the central and most important document in Judaism and the Jews believe the Torah contains all the rules in which they must structure their spiritual lives. The principal message of the Torah is the absolute unity of God, His creation of the world and His concern for it, and His everlasting covenant with the people of Israel. The most well-known of the Torah are the Ten Commandments, which are multiplied to about six hundred and thirteen (613) laws that cover many aspects of daily life, including family life, personal hygiene and diet. These laws are subsumed in Judaic Religion as PURE and IMPURE laws or CLEANLINESS and UNCLEANLINESS as seen in the gospel. And with the multiplication of the laws, life was extremely difficult for the people of God, especially the poor such as the orphans, the sick, the widows and defenseless.
Christ and His disciples in the Gospel scandalized the Pharisees, Scribes and Priests of the Temple. On various occasions, Christ touched those considered as impure, that is, the leper, the blind, the lame or sick. Going by the law, after having contact with such persons, He would be considered to be ritually unclean and in need of purification. This was one of the reasons why He often found Himself in conflict with the authorities. The law of impurity placed a heavy weight on the poor, and whoever is considered unclean goes to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice and give alms in order to become clean again. The priest of the temple would receive the animals for sacrifice purchased in the Temple. This added to the political and economic power of the Scribes and Pharisees, while the poor who could not afford the purchase of the costly animals at the Temple were marginalized or excluded from the society.
With the intention of the Scribes and Pharisees to threaten the disciples with the law, they asked Christ, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” At this point, Christ first condemned their religious practices by calling them hypocrites who left the commandment of God and held fast to the tradition of men, reminding them of the prophecy of Isaiah, “This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” He seized this opportunity to teach them about the pure and impure laws. Put differently, internal and external religiosity.
Christ said to them, “Hear me, all of you and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” Practically, eating with unclean hands is not what defiles us; rather, what comes out of us speaks more loudly, of how pure or impure our hearts are. Invariably, it is not enough to practice washing or purification of hands in a ceremonial way. Rather it is more important to purify our hearts and minds, from which good and evil thoughts are realized. Christ sees beyond the washing of hands to minister to all of us that are more religious outwardly, but deep within us are full of evil. If our hearts can be open for our friends and neighbours to see the plans we have for them, or we see the plans they have for us, then we shall know those that are truly pure in heart. This is not farfetched from us where in our families and at times even in religious communities, brothers and sisters sit together, eat together, play and laugh with each other but behind stab one another.
Finally, St. James tells us in the second reading not to remain hearers of these words and keep deceiving ourselves, but doers of the Word of God. He also gives us the ideal religious practices: helping the orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. We pray with the Psalm of today to be among those who will abide in the tent of God: those who do no wrong to a neighbour, who cast no slur to a friend, who look with scorn on the wicked but honour those who fear the Lord. Amen!
Fr. Ken Dogbo, OSJ