Sep 2, 2018: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

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1st Reading – Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8

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?”

On the plains of Moab, God charged Moses, who was close to death, to proclaim once more the Law which he received through the revelation on Mount Sinai. This proclamation is contained in the fifth and last book of the Pentateuch, which in Greek is named deuteronomion (second law).  The name is not indicative of a new Law, but a second giving of the same Law.

Moses is addressing a new generation of Israelites, all of whom were under the age of 20 when the Exodus began. In having the Law restated, Yahweh is reminding them that his covenant with Israel is made with all generations (29:13), both present and future: it is an everlasting covenant.

Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear

Shema, the Hebrew exhortation to hear, is a solemn summons used to assemble people for consultation, worship, or war.  It stresses the importance of what is about to be said.

the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe,

A statute (hōq) is a positive decree of Law that has been chiseled into stone.  A decree (mishpāt) is a judicial decision.

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.

Some blessings from God are given freely, with nothing required in return (for example, the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3).  Others, like the possession of the land they were about to enter, were contingent upon obedience.

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.

A prohibition against changing the mutual obligations of the covenant.  In some ways the law has developed out of human customs and practices (for example, thou shalt not kill” was surely being observed before the covenant was established), but it now enjoys the authority of God and must be treated as such.

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.’

Observance of the law is not only for Israel’s sake; their compliance will serve as a witness to other nations.

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?”

Other nations would recognize the graciousness of the one God of Israel, who instituted a relationship with his people and is concerned for their welfare.  Israel’s response in the form of obedience would lead the nations to conclude that only a great people would merit such a God.

These bold claims are intended as an incentive for obedience rather than as grounds for boasting, and it instilled a respect for the law that survives to this day.

2nd Reading – James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27

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.

Today we move from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians to the letter attributed to James, the letter we will be reading for the next five weeks.

The author to whom this letter is ascribed is probably not either of the two apostles named James, because he only identifies himself as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). Scholars generally agree that the author is most likely a third New Testament person named James, a relative of Jesus who is usually called “brother of the Lord” (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).

He was the leader of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem; in Acts he appears as the authorized spokesman for the Jewish Christian position in the early Church (Acts 12:17, 15:13-21).

Although the New Testament reading doesn’t always have a direct thematic relationship to the Gospel (the way the Old Testament reading does), today’s reading from James fits this week’s theme perfectly.  James, like Jesus and Moses, is emphasizing the fact that religion is not so much about following rules as it is about loving one’s neighbor.

Dearest brothers and sisters: All good giving and every perfect gift is from above,

God is the fountain of all giving, the source of every gift.

coming down from the Father of lights,

God is described as living in the heavens, where the sun, moon, and stars give off their radiance.

with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.

Unlike heavenly bodies, which change position and whose benefits are intermittent, God’s goodness is constant.  He does not change; he is immutable, ever-present.

He willed to give us birth by the word of truth

The birth referred to here is probably not our initial creation, but our re-birth in salvation effected through the Gospel, the “word of truth.”

Note that God wills this re-birth for us: it is he that initiates the relationship.

that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

The familiar analogy of a harvest.  Within the “harvest” of those who have been or will be saved, the Christians are the firstfruits.  Their salvation will be the sign of the salvation of others.

Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.

The word of truth that has saved us remains in us as a force of ongoing transformation.  We are encouraged to welcome this powerful force and allow it to grow within us and accomplish the task God has ordained.

Be doers of the word and not hearers only,

This one statement could summarize of the entire epistle of James: be doers of the word.

We are not merely to hear the word, we are called to perform concrete actions.  A similar theme is found in Romans 2:13… For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather those who observe the law will be justified.

deluding yourselves.

To be “hearers only” is folly.

In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus states: Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock … Everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction

Christians are instructed to intervene on behalf of the community’s most vulnerable: widows and orphans, who have no legal status in a patriarchal society.

The Old Testament often refers to widows and orphans as deserving special attention (Sirach 4:10; Psalm 68:5; Psalm 146:9; Deuteronomy 27:19) and the first Christians made
arrangements for the care of widows in the early communities (Acts 6:1; Acts 9:39; 1 Timothy 5:3-16).

and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Believers are to preserve themselves from practices that might undermine Christian values.

As is often the case in the New Testament, the word “world” is used in a negative light, referring to opposition to God. (For other examples, see 2 Peter 2:20; John 1:10; John 7:7; John 16:8-11; Ephesians 2:2.)

Gospel – Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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?”
He responded,
“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.”

After our sojourn into John’s gospel for the Bread of Life discourse, this week we return to Mark, rejoining it immediately after Jesus’ walking on water.  Jesus has a dispute with his opponents over the issue of ritual cleansing.

When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem
gathered around Jesus,

Mentioning that the scribes and Pharisees “come from Jerusalem” implies that they bring with them the authority of the religious leadership that resides there.  They represent the official attitude of prominent Jewish leaders toward Jesus.

they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is,
unwashed, hands.

Hands were not washed for reasons of hygiene or good manners, but for religious significance: it was a rite of purification.

 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. 

Unlike Matthew’s gospel, which was written for Jewish Christians, Mark adds a long
explanation of the Jewish customs in question, for the benefit of his Gentile readers.

Ritual hand-washing before meals probably originated as one of the regulations observed by priests when offering a sacrifice (Exodus 30:17-21). Jewish tradition extended this to all Jews before every meal, in an effort to give meals a religious significance.  This practice was not mandate by the law itself, but was a custom included in the oral law, which is here called “the tradition of the elders.”

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?”

The Pharisees were strong proponents of this body of unwritten law, which by the time of Jesus had developed into 613 precepts.  This unwritten law was intended as a “fence around the Law” so that the Law itself would never be violated.  They expected a truly religious person to adopt their high standards of holiness, and since Jesus does not appear to have done so, they criticize him.

Note that they indirectly criticize Jesus, by citing the action of his disciples and not Jesus himself.  This public criticism of his followers, for which he would be held responsible, is intended to shame him and diminish his reputation, so that he would be less of a threat to his opponents.

He responded, “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.’

Jesus response is swift and cutting, quoting Isaiah 29:13 in the Septuagint form.  In that passage, the prophet condemns those who were faithful to outward observance of religious practices but were remiss when it came to total commitment to God.

You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

In case there was any doubt about his point, Jesus makes an explicit connection between the scribes and Pharisees and those who were condemned by Isaiah.

Ritual purification was intended as a symbol of the moral purity a person should have when approaching God, but the Pharisees were focused on the mere external rite. The very ones who demanded strict observance of their law failed to observe God’s law.

He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and
understand.

Jesus uses the opportunity to teach a deeper lesson to his followers, beginning with an authoritative command to “hear and understand,” so that his followers would appreciate the seriousness and universality of what he is about to say.

Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”

Uncleanness or impurity is not determined by anything external.  What one eats merely passes through the body; defilement originates from the innermost recesses of the heart.

The truth expressed here must have been surprising to the Jews, considering that no parallels are found in rabbinical literature. Its implications were only realized when the Church was confronted with the question of whether Gentile converts were to observe
Jewish dietary and other regulations (Acts 10, Acts 15, Galatians 2:11-17).

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.”

To illustrate that evil is hatched in the human heart, Jesus catalogs several sins.  Although they are external offenses against others, they are all first conceived in the heart.  We are defiled by what comes out of us, rather than what we put into ourselves.

“This is an answer to those who consider that evil thoughts are simply injected by the devil and that they do not spring from our own will. He can add strength to our bad thoughts and inflame them, but he cannot originate them” [Saint Bede The Venerable (ca. A.D. 725), Homilies On The Gospels, 2].

Connections and Themes

  • The readings this week present a bit of a paradox:
    • The first reading is the beginning of the Shema, a prayer that Jews are to recite every day.  It extols the beauty of the law given to Israel and holds up obedience to that law as a sign of gratitude to God.
    • In the second reading, James calls his readers to care for widows and orphans, a common theme found throughout Israel’s law.
    • However, in the gospel reading, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for their strict observance of the law, insisting that our interior disposition determines our purity.
  • On one level, the covenant is defined by the set of laws that accompany it.  They are words of truth that stipulate righteous living and humane treatment of others.  Obedience to these laws leads to life and blessings.  On a deeper level, the covenant is a relationship that binds us to God and God to us, not a set of laws.  Fidelity to that relationship is more important than rigid conformity to a set of laws.  True obedience flows from deep within us, from the core of our hearts where our relationship with God lives.
  • We must be constantly vigilant against the danger of contrasting Christianity as a religion of love and interior conversion, and Judaism as legalistic.  What today’s gospel recounts is clearly a dispute between two parties which are both Jewish.  It is a warning against the tendency in every religion to equate traditions, which are human precepts, with God’s will.
  • Religious practices are based on meaning and purpose.  And yet, for many the meaning and purpose is lost, even though we still perform the customs.  How many of us know why we stand or sit or kneel during Mass?  How many of us care?  How many of us do it because that’s the way we’ve always done it?  Like the Pharisees who were ritually clean to an extreme, but had forgotten the purpose of that cleanliness, our practices do not always flow from a deep religious conviction.  Once we realize our genuine relationship with God — once we make our faith our own — those same practices become authentic expressions of praise, gratitude, need, or repentance.
  • Once the word of God has taken root in us, as James describes, our entire lives become an authentic religious practice.  Our eyes are opened, our hearts are softened, and we become “doers of the word.”  When this happens, the law becomes sacred, our practices are cherished, and we are filled with God’s saving power.

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