What is the ‘right thing to do’ is very much a current issue but of course a concern for ages. Today three different takes on human obligations. The first and second readings from the Hebrew Bible call for carrying out all of the Jewish Torah, often translated as ‘Law’. In the Gospel Jesus discounts outer observances and emphasises the inner disposition where good and evil impulses arise.
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
This book of the Old Testament is written as if a last address of Moses before his death, reminding the people of their history of coming out of Egypt and receiving the Law of the Covenant made with God at Sinai. With its emphasis on keeping the commands, it was a summary of right living that has enduring provisions. But it also had a lot of ritual regulations and ideas about what is ‘unclean’. Rabbis counted over 600 of these. In this section Moses begins the sermon, and offers as motivation the idea that the wisdom shown by the Law will make them a nation recognized for its prudence and greatness and so favoured by God.
This psalm is in the same spirit urging obedience to the commands, as a summary of the spirit of the laws. The emphasis on right relationships and obligations to the poor lead into the next reading.
James 1:17-18, 21, 22, 27
We will have selections from the Letter of James for the next five weeks; today we start with background on the whole Letter. The author, in the opening of the Letter which we do not read, describes himself as ‘James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ There are three James mentioned in the Gospels, but there is general agreement that this one is ‘James the brother of the Lord’ mentioned in Galatians 1:19. Mark and Matthew both quote the people of Nazareth naming the brothers of Jesus and including a James. (‘Brothers’ may be other close relatives like cousins and Catholics have believed they are not sons of Mary.) This James was probably a leader in the Jerusalem Church.
Timothy W. Leahy, S.J. in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, summarizes the Letter as ‘a long series of exhortations, mostly brief and loosely connected. The one common trait, which gives the letter its distinctive quality, is a concern that the faith of the recipients be not merely theoretical or abstract, but implemented in every aspect of their lives. In a situation where trials and temptations abound and where the poor suffer at the hands of the rich, James exhorts them to joy, endurance, wisdom, confident prayer, and faithful response to God’s word.’
We see some of that in our selection today, which begins with a description of how trustworthy God is, and how we have been chosen as God’s children. ‘Father of Lights’ may refer to God’s creation as described in the opening of Genesis, or be metaphoric, indicating God as the source of all knowledge. It contrasts God’s unchanging ‘light’ to the changes observed in the lights of our physical world.
‘The word which is implanted in you’ recalls Jesus as the Word, with a focus on what Jesus has revealed to us. The verse ‘do as the word tells you’ is almost a summary of the whole letter for Leahy. James goes on to give some examples, of which only verse 27 is in our reading. ‘Widows and orphans’ were an especially needy group in the times of the Bible, and are also singled out also in the Old Testament. They do not exclude others in distress, but stand for the necessity of caring for any who need help in difficult circumstances.
The use of ‘world’ for the kind of thinking and actions opposed to God is common in the New Testament, frequent in Paul and in John. It is not the natural world, but the common misbehaviour of people in the secular world of that time, which is also readily observable around us today, as well.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The opening of our selection causes some problems for commentators on the Gospel, partly in the wording and partly for the list of practices which are not clearly phrased in other Jewish sources, but the main thrust is clear enough. Mark obviously feels it necessary to explain something about Jewish customs to his original readers, which suggests that they come from a Gentile background. He also wants to make it clear that these practices have become excessive, going beyond the Law received through Moses.
The Scribes were students of the Law, and coming from Jerusalem to see Jesus may indicate that they were concerned over what they had heard about his teaching and actions. The Pharisees were a group that set themselves apart to keep even the most minute of the interpretations that had grown up around the Law itself – ‘the traditions of the elders’. Jesus will call these ‘human traditions’ and both in his own words and in the quotation from Isaiah, he charges that in sticking to the ‘letter of the Law’ and adding even more than the ‘traditional’ restrictions, they have forgotten its real purpose is bringing people into right relationship with God and with other people and not in ticking off a list of rules. The original meaning of ‘hypocrite’ was an actor, and so it came to mean putting on a show of behaviour that did not reflect the inner person.
The issue of how much of the ritual parts of the Jewish Law should be binding on Christians was something the early Church had to deal with (compare Acts 10) and that may be reflected in the intensity of what Mark writes about Jesus’ attitude. The importance Jesus puts on this is shown by his not just answering the Pharisees and scribes, but in calling the people to hear his teaching on what is truly ‘unclean’ – that is, what really separates people from God. This list of vices was a common one at the time and all are evident in the world today.
It is easy to think of the hypocrisy and ‘gnat-straining’ of the Pharisees as only an historical issue. Mary Healy, in her commentary on Mark, disagrees. Jesus’ warnings ‘against their errors are recorded in the gospels because they are warnings to Christians as well.’