Today’s lectors will not correctly proclaim today’s first reading unless they understand the biblical significance of Moses’ initial words to his people. “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live . . . “Through the mouth of the greatest Jewish liberator, the author of Deuteronomy is telling us what underlies all biblical rules and regulations: life. By following such “statutes and decrees,” a person should have a more fulfilled life than someone who rejects them.
We who were taught that religion’s main goal was to get us into heaven, might have a problem with this. We’ve been trained to focus on the afterlife, not this life.
About 15 years ago we replaced the wood pews in our parish church with cushioned chairs. One elderly couple who decided to attend Mass in another parish after the change later returned to participate in a funeral. On the way to the cemetery, the man was overheard to observe, “Those chairs really are more comfortable than the old pews.” His remark was quickly countered by his wife’s icy reminder, “You’re not supposed to be comfortable in church!”
The Deuteronomy author knew nothing of a comfortable afterlife. The insight of an eternal reward for good acts performed here on earth was still centuries down the road. In early Jewish theology, if you weren’t comfortable here, you wasted your one and only life. That’s why the writer thanks God he’s an Israelite. “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law?” In other words, “Where can we find a better way to relate to God and others in such a fulfilling way?”
James classically summarizes what we can expect to be accomplishing here and now if we’re truly carrying out God’s word. “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.”
In today’s gospel pericope we discover that it’s often difficult to distinguish between God’s word and the world’s contamination of that word. Jesus points out - in a section left out of our liturgical passage - the distinction between God’s will and what organized religion claims to be God’s will. In this case the issue revolves around taking care of the institution or taking care of one’s parents.
Jesus’ Isaiah quote gets to the heart of the issue: “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.” Then he succinctly sums up the situation: “You disregard God’s commandments but cling to human traditions.”
In today’s readings the biblical criterion for distinguishing God’s laws from human laws isn’t whether a particular law will get us into heaven or send us to hell, but whether people right here and now are living a fulfilled life because of that law.
Certainly the parents of children who gave their money to a religious institution instead of taking care of them didn’t have a very comfortable life. Faithful to God’s word in our lives, we’re always looking for anyone who, like James’ widows and orphans, lack completeness in this world. If a particular law doesn’t accomplish this, that law can’t be from God, no matter what the religious institution claims.
Most Christians once believed God permitted them to keep slaves. Some church theologians even tried to convince us that it was precisely because slaves were held in captivity that their lives were so fulfilling.