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Breath of the Spirit

Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.

Breath of the Spirit is our electronic spiritual and liturgical resource for our members and potential members. Nothing can replace your chapter or other faith community but we hope you will find further support here for integrating your spirituality with your sexuality and all the strands of your life.

If we’re not caring for people, we’re not following God’s laws.


Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
James 1:17-18, 21b, 22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Even the most liberal Scripture scholars – convinced we can know almost nothing about the historical Jesus – admit there’s one thing about this early first century CE Palestinian carpenter that we do know for certain: he was a law-breaker.

Already back in chapter 2, Mark strings together a series of narratives in which Jesus’ (and his disciples’) law-breaking sets off confrontations with his law-abiding critics. So it shouldn’t surprise us that in chapter 7, Mark’s Jesus reaches a point in which he teaches that his followers don’t have to follow even the venerable and well-known Jewish dietary regulations. “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person,” he points out. “But the things that come out from within are what defile.”

Since many of us don’t appreciate the historical Jesus’ Jewish background, we also don’t appreciate the importance of his skirting many of the rules and regulations at the heart of his religious practices. As we hear in today’s Deuteronomy reading, Moses couldn’t be clearer about the obligation assumed by all Israelites to keep every one of the commandments they agreed to at Mt. Sinai. “. . . You shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. Observe them carefully . . . .” How could Jesus then, as a good Jew, not observe so many of them?

In the midst of his chapter 2 lawbreaking, he gives three reasons for his behavior: two make sense to almost anyone; a third creates problems for almost everyone. First, he’s not the first Jew to break laws. King David, for instance, was well-known for not being limited by religious rules and regulations. Second, as God, Jesus can dictate his own path in life, free from any legal restrictions. Third, people come first. Only after Yahweh created humans did laws come into existence.

This last reason was so controversial in the early church that when Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels a few years after Mark, they deliberately left it out though they had a copy of Mark’s gospel in front of them when they wrote theirs. Who’s to judge what’s for people’s good and what isn’t? Such reasoning opens up a can of worms which many prefer not to open.

Yet we presume the historical Jesus did open it. Not only as a good Jew, but also as a reformer of Judaism he knew his covenant responsibilities didn’t revolve around getting into heaven, but in experiencing as fulfilling a life as possible on this earth. He eventually came to the insight that an emphasis on keeping laws put the focus on the regulations and took it off the people those regulations originally were meant to help. He didn’t need an advanced degree in theology to point out that some who faithfully followed the laws were actually being hurt, not helped by them. In many situations, the reason the laws had been created was being dead-ended.

We’re grateful that the risen Jesus’ disciples followed his example and also changed their focus. The author of the letter of James demonstrates that turnabout in his classic line, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their afflictions and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” If we’re not caring for people, we’re not following God’s laws.

The upcoming second session of the Synod on the Family will certainly resurrect the first century Christian issue of law-keeping and law-breaking. We can only pray and trust that Pope Francis and the Synod participants will make Jesus’ third reason – as controversial as it is – their guide for keeping or changing some of our most venerable rules and regulations.