As Marcus Borg stresses in his recent book Speaking Christian, biblical salvation rarely has anything to do with the afterlife. That's a difficult concept to swallow if you, like I, learned about my faith not from Scripture, but from religion classes and catechisms.
The vast majority of the sacred authors of the Hebrew Scriptures didn't even know about an afterlife. The idea of possibly entering heaven after our physical deaths only entered Jewish theology about 100 years before Jesus' birth. (Ignorance of this chronology eventually led Christians to develop the idea that heaven's gates were locked after Adam and Eve's sin. It not that its gates were locked; no one knew of its existence.)
Today's Deuteronomy author, for instance, knows only of this life. Good's rewarded and evil punished only between birth and death. That's why his Moses intensely insists his fellow Israelites keep Yahweh's 613 laws. He's trying to help them experience a happy, fulfilled life right here and now.
Before our class left Rome's North American College in 1965, we held a banquet to honor our rector, Bishop Francis Reh. Because he'd been much more open and liberal than our prior rector, one of my classmates, in thanking him, remarked, "We're especially grateful that you let us learn by our own mistakes."
Bishop Reh eventually rose, thanked us for thanking him, made a motion to sit down again, then stood up, looked at the priest who had praised him and said, "I normally don't critique someone who said such nice things about me, but I have to correct something. Only a damn fool learns by his own mistakes; the smart person learns by the fool's mistakes."
Moses agrees. "What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?" The Sinai regulations weren't looked upon as a burden, but as a blessing. If the Israelites kept them, they wouldn't have to worry about making mistakes. Their observance of the 613 statues and decrees guaranteed a happy, fulfilling life: the salvation Yahweh promised.
Though biblical Christians believe in an afterlife, they never abandon their conviction that imitating Jesus will also make this world better - a belief clearly stated at the end of our James pericope. "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." If all Christians follow this advice, we won't have to wait until we die before experiencing heaven.
Of course, not all religious laws make this a better world. Jesus explores this problem in today's gospel passage. It's too bad those who choose our specific reading left out the example Jesus provides of a regulation which made religious leaders happy, but was devastating to parents. If one declared one's wealth "corban" -dedicated to God - then as long as they signed it over to a religious institution, they were absolved from using it to care for their aged parents.
When irate Jewish scholars remind us that they've never surfaced such a regulation in all their legal history, I answer, "No matter. It certainly existed in the Catholic church." Before Vatican II, men and women who entered religious life were normally expected to sever ties with their parents. Their new state of life made them "dedicated" to God. Many of us old-timers remember horror stories of nuns forbidden to return home for a parent's illnesses or even death.
Thankfully things changed for most religious after the council made us more aware of Jesus' original, here and now plan of salvation.