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?"
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.
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."
The Vatican II reforms opened my eyes to people’s confusion over what are God laws, and what are human laws. Having been brought up in a church which prided itself on never changing, a lot of people – surprisingly more middle age than old - had huge problems when the Council bishops started modifying some of our teachings and regulations. Many of us thought whatever we did and believed came directly from God.
One of the main jobs of reformers – like Jesus of Nazareth – is to remind us what exactly in our faith is from God and what is from humans. It’s natural and easy to mix the two.
Before we start casting stones at the Pharisees and scribes in today’s gospel pericope, I remind you of a late-1960s national survey of Catholics. The questioners asked just one question: “Is it more important to give up meat on Friday or to love your neighbor?” Surprisingly, a majority answered, “Give up meat on Friday.” We obviously learned our catechisms well. But we made little distinction between God’s law and church law. In this case, a changeable human regulation trumped God’s most basic command.
The Deuteronomy author provides us with the best reason for keeping God’s laws: life. Though this particular writer knows nothing of an afterlife, he or she is certain that keepers of Yahweh’s statutes and decrees will have a better quality of life right here and now than those who disregard those regulations. That’s why we should never grumble about having to follow religious laws. We should be grateful for the life we experience by keeping them.
Cutting through the red tape that befuddles many of the faithful about which laws to keep and which to ignore, the author of James tells his community to just zero in on “. . . caring for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Above all, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only . . ..” Yet, as innocent as it sounds, “keeping oneself unstained” can become complicated.
It would appear the risen, not the historical Jesus speaks in today’s gospel pericope. Were it the historical Jesus, Paul’s frequent conflicts with “Judaizers” wouldn’t make sense. He’d win every argument against his conservative, law-abiding Christians by just quoting this passage.
The triggering device for this specific teaching of Jesus springs from non-Jews becoming Christians. As long as everyone who accepts the faith of Jesus is a Jew, this question never arises. As Jews, all early first Christian century Jews followed the 713 laws of Moses.
The first Gentile convert creates a problem. Does he or she have to adhere to those Mosaic regulations, especially the dietary rules? Paul’s letters are where the question is hashed out, not the gospels. By the time Mark writes – the early 70s – the issue is fairly well settled. His Jesus can proclaim, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person.” Yet the question that prompted this passage still remains: what does God actually want us to do; and what are simply human regulations?
Perhaps the best way to settle this question is to return to Deuteronomy. What laws bring life?
During the 50th anniversary year of Humane Vitae, this is still the criterion. But our definition of life is always evolving. We no longer limit it to just physical life. The deeper we delve into life, the more complicated is our definition. Of course, I presume we experience a much more meaningful life when we employ our God-given consciences to solve birth control questions than when we just methodically follow human regulations. Proof that God’s laws aren’t always simple to surface or easy to carry out.