Faithfulness to the Word of God: Readings for the 22nd Week

Faithfulness to the Word of God: Readings for the 22nd Week


The Plains of Moab (Deuteronomy)

The Readings for Mass this week call us to purify our walk with God, and make an examination of conscience: are my “religious” practices helpful, or are they distracting me from what is central in my relationship with God?

1.  The First Reading is from 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?”

Deuteronomy is broken into three major sections: a lengthy introduction, chs. 1-11; a code of laws, chs. 12-26; and a conclusion, chs. 27-34.  Our reading comes from the introduction, which is a set of exhortations in which Moses urges Israel to be faithful to the laws he gives them.

The key phrase in this passage for Sunday’s liturgy is vs. 2: “You shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.”  As we will see in the Gospel reading, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did, in fact, add quite a bit to what Moses had commanded.  Their additions at times ended up violating principles that were at the heart of God’s law.  These violations would qualify as “subtracting” from the law.  We will discuss this topic further when we get to the Gospel reading.

The final verse of our reading also requires some comment:

“What great nation has statutes and decrees
that are as just as this whole law
which I am setting before you today?”

Here, Moses describes the laws that he is setting forth as being “just,” in fact, more just than the laws of the pagan nations.

Yet we know that some laws Moses gave were imperfect: cases in which he made allowances for their “hardness of heart.”  Jesus teaches this, especially with respect to Moses’ law on divorce (Deut 24:1): “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt. 19:8).

So there were imperfections in the laws of Moses.  Besides divorce, we might also mention that Moses permitted slavery under certain conditions (Deut 15:12-18) and total warfare under certain conditions (20:16-18).  From the perspective of our fuller moral knowledge in Christ, these laws appear below God’s perfect standard.  So we might ask, How can Moses say his laws are more just than the laws of the other nations?

And the simple answer is: Because they were!  While the laws of the Deuteronomy made allowances for the sinfulness of Israel, and did not attain to the moral perfection of the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, for example (Matt 5-7), nonetheless they were better than the laws of the pagans.  Moses’ laws limited even if they did not eliminate certain social vices: divorce was permitted only for the cause of “indecency” (Deut 24:1); total warfare was only permitted against the Canaanites living in the land of Israel, and to no one else (Deut 20:10-15); slavery was permitted only for up to seven years, after which the slave was to be freed and given gifts to start a new life on his own (Deut 15:12-15).  Most of the surrounding pagan societies had no limitations on divorce, on total warfare, or on slavery.

Atheist social commentators and other public figures, including President Obama, have been very free lately about public criticism of the morality of the Bible.  Without concern for historical context and without knowledge of how Christians in general and especially the Catholic Church interpret Scripture, they cite various random laws from the Old Testament that offend modern sensibilities as evidence that “the Bible” can’t be the basis for public morality.  However, the Church has never read the Bible in such a simplistic, random, and literal way as Dawkins, Obama, and others suggest.  The Church’s first commitment is to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Church reads the Old Testament as Jesus taught us to do.  And he taught us that there were imperfections in the Law of Moses, allowances for the “hardness of heart” of the people of Israel.  After all, even Aristotle points out that the wise lawmaker will sometimes enact a law that is of a lower moral standard but practical, rather than a law that is of a higher standard but too rigorous for his people to follow.  Nonetheless, we must recognize that Moses’ laws, in their own historical context, were better than what was common practice in ancient culture.  Ancient cultures often condoned every sort of sexual perversion, ritual prostitution, widespread infanticide, unregulated warfare and slavery, and a host of other social ills.

The other irony of the criticisms Obama, Dawkins, and others have leveled against the Bible (esp. the Old Testament), is that they have no consistent moral system themselves to offer in its place. Dawkins, Hitchens, Dan Savage, the President, and others have actually imbibed a Christian-shaped moral system from our culture.  For example, the idea of human rights or human dignity arises out of Judaeo-Christian thought.  Atheism provides no basis for the idea of human rights or human dignity.  Atheism provides no basis for morality at all.  Atheists almost all do, in fact, have some sort of personal morality (everyone does), but they cannot give a coherent explanation or account of it.  In particular, they will get very morally indignant at Christians, whom they regard as bad and reprehensible people, but they cannot give an account of their moral indignation.  If we are all just the products of chance and necessity, and we don’t have free will or a non-material soul, than all of us are just acting by instinct, doing the things that we have to do by our genetic programming.  So why get mad at Christians?  Their just zombies acting out their genetic pre-programing like every other animal on the planet—including the atheists themselves.

Criticizing the Bible in ignorant and anachronistic ways is not going to do society any good, and the negative effects are going to be felt by everyone, including the secularists themselves.  They may enjoy ridiculing Christians now, but when they are sick or elderly and their own doctor wants to euthanize them, and the only nurse that treats them with kindness is a young woman raised in a Christian home, they may appreciate the Church’s teaching on the dignity of life from conception to death.

2. The Responsorial is Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5:

R. (1a) One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice;
who thinks the truth in his heart
and slanders not with his tongue.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who harms not his fellow man,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
by whom the reprobate is despised,
while he honors those who fear the LORD.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who lends not his money at usury
and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
shall never be disturbed.
R. One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.

We should recognize that this Psalm praises the man who does not merely pay lip service to morality, but actually practices justice and mercy in his daily life.  The practice of morality, moreover, is not limited to external action: this righteous man also “thinks the truth in his heart.”  This emphasis on what we might call internal integrity—righteousness in our thought life or interior world—is also an important theme in the Gospel reading.  The moral principles of this psalm are obviously a guide for our own life, but in a mystical sense, they also describe the perfectly righteous man, Jesus himself.

3. The Second Reading is from James 1:17-18, 21b-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.
As we know, the Second Reading marches to the beat of its own drummer.  We have just finished up a series of selections from Ephesians, and starting this Sunday we begin a series through James that will include the next four Sundays.
But also, as we have often seen, there is a providential, if unintended, convergence of the Second Reading with themes of the Gospel and the other readings.  In this case, much like the Psalm, James urges us to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”  Jesus, from a different angle, will make the same point in the Gospel.  There are a variety of ways that we can end up as “hearers” rather than “doers.”  The most obvious is by being a blatant sinner or even a criminal.  Most of us don’t fall in that category.  A more subtle way is to become caught up in a “religiosity” that distracts us from actually living out the Gospel.  That’s a more realistic problem for many of us.
Religion that is pure and undefiled, James says, is to:
to care for orphans and widows in their affliction
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Notice that James does not say pure religion is to make the government raise taxes in order to fund social programs administered by secular persons without any reference to Christian morality.  I say that only because in our contemporary culture, “helping the poor” has often become synonymous with political support for well-meaning government policies that are often counter-productive in the long run, as I witnessed myself while doing four years of inner-city urban ministry. (For example, public assistance was often given only to women without a husband in the home—but this then discouraged people in poverty from getting married rather than cohabiting!)  James is not calling for government policies—he is calling on Christians themselves, the Church both corporately and individually, to act to help the orphan and widow.  Let’s keep in mind that the orphan and widow need more than money: they also need friendship and father figures and a community that cares for them.  And most of all, the widow and orphan need to hear the Gospel of a loving God who is Father to the fatherless and a Husband to the widow.  Government programs can never provide the Gospel.

The second line of this verse, “to keep oneself unstained by the world,” refers, among other things, to sexual purity, the practice of chastity according to our state in life.  This is especially difficult in contemporary culture, because most of our forms of media and entertainment are designed constantly to arouse our sexual appetite.  Christians in our culture do simply need to limit exposure to media only to what is needful or useful for our various vocations.  Mindless channel- or web-surfing is a constant occasion of sin.  Chastity is also a social justice issue.  Unchastity in our culture has produced millions of “widows and orphans,” that is, female-headed households abandoned by the “boyfriend”, “fiance”, or even husband who fathered the children.  Female-headed households are extremely vulnerable to poverty and a number of other negative social indicators.  A return to pre-marital abstinence and the practice of chastity according to one’s state in life would go a long way to relieving poverty and social injustice in our culture.

4. The Gospel is 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.”

Jesus criticizes the Pharisees because their “additions” to the Law of Moses were distracting them from the heart of the Mosaic Law.  The heart of the Mosaic Law was to love God above all things:

 Deut. 6:4   “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD;  5 and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

The Pharisees had become more concerned about externals than about matters of the heart.

Jesus also criticizes the disregard of “God’s commandment” for the sake of “human tradition.”

Catholics are often criticized for following tradition, and Protestants often cite this verse to make that criticism.  Thus, this Gospel provides a good opportunity for teaching on the nature of tradition.

The Catholic Church distinguishes between “capital-T” Tradition, which is the teaching handed down from the Apostles, from “small-t” tradition, which consists of the variety of religious customs that have grown up in different parts of the Church.

Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for following “human tradition (Gk. paradosis),” but the New Testament also speaks of a positive tradition which Christians should follow:

1Cor. 11:2   I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions (Gk. paradosis) even as I have delivered them to you.

2Th. 2:15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions (paradosis) which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

2Th. 3:6   Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition (paradosis) that you received from us.

Interestingly, some Protestant Bible versions, like the NIV, translate all positive uses of the Greek word paradosis, “tradition,” with some other word, like “teaching.”  This gives the impression that the New Testament only considers tradition a bad thing.

Throwing out all tradition is neither possible nor desirable.  We need to distinguish between good and bad, between binding and optional tradition.

The Catechism sheds light on this subject:

78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” “The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”

83 The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.
Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.

Jesus’ words in this Gospel remind us that our “small-t” traditions or customs should never lead us to violate the central principles of faith and morals.  Although we do not adhere to the principle of “sola Scriptura,” it is true that the Word of God (in the Bible and in “capital-T” Tradition) do stand above our various customs and “small-t” traditions, and sometimes the latter become a hindrance.

Failure to make a distinction between “small-t” tradition and “capital-T” Tradition led to much of the scandal and loss of faith in the wake of Vatican II.  Vatican II changed many “small-t” traditions: for example, changing celebration of the Mass in Latin to the vernacular.  Unfortunately, many people in the pew could not distinguish between changeable tradition (using Latin) and unchangeable Tradition (the doctrine of the Trinity).  The changes of Vatican II so disconcerted them that they felt “everything” was now up for grabs, and lost their faith.  Unfortunately, ill-intentioned persons also capitalized on the confusion to argue that, indeed, everything was up for grabs, and the faith was continually “evolving.”

“Small-t” tradition can be good, even very good, so long as it helps us toward holiness and conforms to the word of God.  Jesus had his own “traditions,” such as attending the synagogue regularly (Lk 4:16).  Jesus calls us to evaluate all our traditions, including our own personal habits, to see if they are in conflict with interior holiness:

“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.”

This list of vices—”evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery”—sounds like the program line-up for network prime time television, as well as the content of most popular novels and the subject matter of most movies.  We really cannot continually expose ourselves to this sort of “entertainment” without it having an effect on our thought life and the habits of our heart.  In this culture, we really need to be aggressive and proactive in choosing what we are going to think about and place before our eyes and ears.  Let’s listen to St. Paul’s advice:

Phil. 4:8   Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

The Book of Proverbs says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).  Jesus is teaching us the same thing.  Our external actions flow out of our internal life; therefore, what goes on in our mind and heart must also be pure—it is not OK to fantasize about sin, just so long as we don’t carry it out!  Communion with God takes place in the heart; so sins committed only in the heart also drive out the Spirit of God.  One of the best methods of combating the corruption of our heart is frequent, brutally honest confession.  Let’s pray this week that we may make better use of the sacrament of confession to attain the purity of heart that Jesus desires of us.

Originally posted: The Sacred Page.