29 August 2021
Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8 James 1;17-18,21-22,27 Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Theme: Be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves
Today’s first reading is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, one of the five books of the Torah. It presents a vision of the Mosaic law as an integral part of the relationship of loving fidelity between God and the people of Israel. For the Jews, faithful observance of the Law, with its detailed prescriptions covering all aspects of their lives, was essential to developing and deepening their relationship to the God who loved them and accompanied them in their historical journey from slavery to freedom. As psalm 19 clearly indicates, the Jews regarded the law not as a burden but as a gift, something beautiful and life-giving: ‘The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…. More to be desired are they than gold, even fine gold; Sweeter also than honey, than the drippings of the honeycomb’ (Ps 19: 8-10). Little wonder, then, that in today’s first reading we find the Deuteronomist eulogizing the Law: ‘And what great nation is there that has laws and customs to match this whole Law that I put before you today’ (Deut 4:8).
The topic of the Mosaic Law surfaces also in today’s gospel passage from Mark. Some Pharisees and Scribes complain that the followers of Jesus are not observing the prescriptions of the Law regarding the washing of hands before eating. The Pharisees were a lay group who prided themselves on their strict observance of the Law while the Scribes were the professional experts in interpreting and applying the law to the everyday lives of the people. Both took the Law very seriously and were genuinely scandalised by the behaviour of Jesus’ disciples. However, in responding to their complaint, Jesus, instead of apologising for his disciples’ behaviour, launches a blistering attack on their approach to the Law. He accuses them of disregarding the commandment of God while clinging to human tradition, of focusing on external observance while missing the principal purpose of the Law which was to promote heart-felt worship of God. He applies to them the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me’ (Is 29:13). These words challenge us today just as they challenged the scribes and Pharisees. Does our worship of God come from hearts that are turned towards, and attuned to, God and his will for us?
The purification of the heart was indeed an issue of major concern for the Jews. They were convinced that the way to do this was by avoiding contamination from sources outside themselves, especially from contact with the Gentile world – contact that would corrupt their hearts and render them impure in God’s sight. This belief lay behind their multiple rites of purification. Jesus points out that the transformation of the heart is a job of interior reclamation, not a matter of frequent washings or the avoidance of certain foods. It is not what goes into a person from outside that makes one unclean or impure. It is what comes from the heart that makes one unclean, for the heart is the source of those destructive evil intentions that lead us astray and wreak havoc in our world – like pride, avarice, envy, murder, slander, etc.
Jesus’ attack was not directed against the Law itself but against the way it was being used, or rather misused, by the scribes and Pharisees as an instrument of power and control rather than an agent of transformation. As Jesus himself says in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ (Mt 5:17). But, to achieve its purpose, Jesus knew that the Law had to be employed not as an end in itself but as a means to an end, as an instrument of interior liberation and transformation. And for this transformation to happen, Law by itself was not sufficient. It had to leave room for the surprising action of divine grace. In the words of the poet, Patrick Kavanagh, ‘God cannot catch us/Unless we stay in the unconscious room/ of our hearts…./ We must not daydream to-morrow’s judgement -/ God must be allowed to surprise us’.
Our second reading today, taken from the Letter of St James, reminds us that God has indeed surprised us by planting his word within our hearts. But we must be humble enough to submit to that word and act in accordance with it: ‘You must do what the word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves’ (James 1:22). For James the purity of our faith is manifested by the quality of our loving outreach to those most in need, especially marginalised people like widows and orphans (cf. James 1:23). James echoes that succinct description of true religion given by the prophet Micah: ‘Act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8). This is as good a summary of the Law as we are likely to find anywhere in the Bible.
‘As we gather around the table of the Lord, let us open our hearts to receive the word that God has planted within us. Enable us by your grace to worship you not only with our lips but with our hearts, and to be disciples not only in words but in actions—actions that make a difference in our lives and in our world. Amen’
Fr Michael McCabe SMA, Cork, August 2021
View Fr Tom Casey’s Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year live here.