Law is essentially a good to be valued. When honestly established and properly understood, carefully observed and equitably upheld; laws functions as a safeguard which protect each member of the human community. It is laws provide that necessary structure to foster the growth and development of individuals within their respective societies. Our Hebrew brethren refer to the law of this nature as Torah. A more comprehensive term than law, Torah means instruction/teaching originating from God’s revelation.
Torah prescribes how to live one’s life. To study Torah is to know God; to know God is to have life. One of the most outstanding prayers of Rabbis expresses these beliefs beautifully: ‘Blessed is God who has created us for glory and has given us Torah, planting everlasting life in our midst’. Indeed, faithfulness to Torah is the pathway to life and a means of closeness to God. We need to return to this truth and live.
First reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
What is Law? Law is a guideline that makes creation live life to the fullest. In history law develops to set as it sets out a good and harmonious code of conduct among the majority. In addition to being the gauge and history of the moral development of the people, balanced law is a gift from God that sets the right ones apart. Whereas the law codes of other nations functioned as necessary safeguards of individual rights and as a means to redress wrong, Israel understood the Torah as an imparted favor and a blessing. As source of wisdom and strength, the Torah bestowed life and identity to those who heeded its words. From time immemorial, these statutes and decrees were regarded as impeccable terms for Israel’s exclusive relationship with God. To keep Torah was to keep close company with the Creator of the universe while safe guarding the land.
Due to this legal focus, Israel interpreted its political successes and failures as proportionate to how the Torah was observed. It is encouraged that every human person in normal senses should remain faithful to this Torah because of these benefits: 1- fullness of life; that you may live. 2- the land; take possession of this unique natural life saving property. 3- the gift of wisdom to assist one perceive issues above average and 4- nearness to God that makes one prosper. cf. Deuteronomy 4:1, 6-7. Faithful observance of the Torah resulted into indefinite blessings.
Instead, the other nations who attended to other gods instead of Yahweh would never have an identity but as the Torah is observed “nothing should be added to or subtracted from it” cf. Deuteronomy 4:2. It is interesting that such prohibitions are also common in the Law Code of Hammurabi. What makes the Torah unique is that good law is only possible when it reveals God’s will. In our time we need to keep in mind that there is a clear distinction between the commandments of God and the traditions of humankind. The law of God leads humanity out of the darkness and tangled web of casuistry into the bold and simple light of the truth.
Second reading: James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
Today, and for the next four weeks, our mentor during the second reading will be James. Of the five men named James in the bible; James, the brother of Jesus has been traditionally credited with the document that bears his name. The author identifies himself as; a- “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” James 1:1. b- the letter is written in excellent Greek c- with practical and realistic in tone and substance which reads more like a sermon than a letter d- it is aimed at averting an abstract and inauthentic expression of Christian faith e- those who have been privileged to hear God’s word are to live and act by virtue of that power since, only listening to the word of God and not acting upon it is to deceive oneself. The person who is a hearer but not a doer of the word is like someone who looks into a mirror and then goes off and promptly forgets the face he/she has seen. Such a person is good for nothing.
To see what is wrong and to do nothing is similar to cooperating with what is evil. With dual emphasis on hearing and doing, the ever-practical St. James reminds us to stop being enemies to ourselves. He insists that any good heard in the holy place must be lived in every other place. All of us who have accepted Christ as our personal savior ought to comply by his recommendations.
Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Although the Halakah/Oral law was described by the Jews as a fence/wall around the Torah, designed to preserve and protect, it had become a virtual barrier and a burden which obscured God’s gift of the law and weighed heavily upon the hearts of people. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, Oral Law had become so detailed and cumbersome that ordinary people could not comprehend its complexities. At issue in today’s Gospel is the principle of clean and unclean which is at the root of Jewish preoccupation with ritual purification. To this effect, the Oral Law had developed definite and rigid rules, not in the interest of hygienic cleanliness but for the sake of ritual/ceremonial purity. For example, hands were to be washed before every meal and between courses in a specific manner. Hands were brushed clean of any sand or soil. The water for washing was reserved in special stone jars so that it also was ceremonially pure. With fingertips pointing upward, water was poured over the hands until it ran down to the wrists. Even the amount of water was specified, that is, a quantity equal to one and one half egg shells full. With hands still wet, one hand washed the other but since this action made the water unclean, more water was poured on the hands with fingertips pointing downward. To fail in any part of this ritual was to be unclean in the sight of God. It was for this reason that the Pharisees and Scribes cited the disciples of Jesus for not washing their hands before eating cf. Mark 7:5.
At this point it should be noted that the Oral Law required such hand washing only of priests in Jesus’ day. Therefore the accusation against the disciples was not called for. Contact with gentiles was deemed unclean thus had to be avoided at any cost. Since such people were becoming common near places of worship especially outside Israel; then rules for ritual ablution were extended to lay people. Jesus, for his part, cut through the ‘legalese’ of his critics and spoke to the very heart of the matter. Purity or holiness would no longer be a matter of soap and water but of a lived faith which responds to God’s word.
Quoting the prophet Isaiah 29:13; Jesus called upon his audience to move beyond hypocrisy which pays lip service but hides a sinful devious heart behind the impeccably washed hands. This argument is remarkably similar to that of Hebrews 9-10. Like the Hebrews, Jesus showed that legal discrimination between clean and unclean is incapable of effecting moral purity. Jesus annulled the concept of cultic cleansing because he was bringing into being another and far more efficacious means of attaining holiness. Jesus prefaced his new teaching, ‘hear me’; this Shema/call to listen reminiscent of the manner in which people were called to hear and obey the law of God. As this gospel is read in our midst today, we are all being challenged to hear and listen, and thus become pure and holy as God requires.
When we interpret and reinforce laws we may sometimes stray far from the simple truths they are meant to reveal and protect. Let is keep laws simple and clear for all. For any faith to be useful, it ought to be accompanied by good works that are pro people. Jesus invites us to avoid any form of hypocrisy because it carries no value in it. Through his words and works God is calling us to return to simplicity, authenticity and a balanced lifestyle.