Words on the Word

22. Sunday B

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8: What nation has its gods so near as the Lord is to us?
James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27: Accept and submit to the word that has been planted in you.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23: It is from within that evil intentions emerge.

There is a certain caricature of Old Testament religion abroad, even among people who ought to know better, according to which ancient Israel was so oppressed by the ‘yoke of the Law’ that it ended up chronically depressed. On this reading, the Law is a dark web of inscrutable, pointless rules; it makes of life a nightmare course of red lights, No Entry signs, and double yellow lines; it tortures the sensitive conscience. Should we ever hear this opinion expressed (or worse, feel tempted to entertain it ourselves), let us run for our Bible and, as quickly as we can, look up the passage from Deuteronomy we have just heard. It is the perfect antidote to superficial nonsense and tells us what the Law really meant to Israel. The Law, we hear, is an inexhaustible treasure of wisdom; a paradigm of justice; a sacrament of God’s presence among his people. Israel loved the Law and fully expected other nations to admire it, green with envy!

How did the alternative, negative appraisal of religious law come about? It was not a legacy of Christ and the Apostles. Christ, we remember, tells us that not an iota of the Torah will pass away until the end of time, while St Paul (admittedly by way of occasionally tortuous argument) presents the Law, in Romans 3, for example, as upheld and confirmed by the gospel of Christ. Christian faith does not cancel out the need for positive religious practice; it makes such practice more urgent than ever. St James is representative of first-century preaching when he insists that ‘you must do what the word tells you and not merely listen to it’. God’s offer of grace and forgiveness invites more than just consent. It calls for a lived response in obedience, so that, by ‘accepting and submitting to the word’, our souls may be saved. This is not to say that God’s commandments seemed to the Apostle, any more than to the writers of Deuteronomy, a harsh and burdensome thing. No! The commandments, he says, sum up and convey what is good, perfect, and given from above. They are a gift from the Father of light intended to make us children of light. They are a message of truth given to confute the world’s deceit.

What, then, is the correct way of reading today’s Gospel? How can we apply it to our lives? I suggest that it not a text about observance versus non-observance. Rather, it is a call to establish right order in observance. We know from Christ’s other teaching that the ‘first and greatest commandment’ (‘love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself’) does not automatically cancel out more pernickety regulations about tithes to be paid on dill and cumin. But it is clearly absurd to be so caught up with the taxes due on our kitchen garden that we fail to act charitably to the needy man or woman next door. A similar comparison is made out in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees were not doing anything wicked in having a wash on returning from the market. Their gesture was a symbolic enactment of the precept given by St James: ‘Keep yourselves uncontaminated by the world.’ We Cistercians used to do a similar thing when we washed our hands on entering the refectory for lunch or supper, even if they were already glistening. The point of the exercise was not so much to remove dirt as to remind ourselves by an act that we were about to pass from a profane to a sacred sphere, to partake of a fraternal meal that recalls the Eucharist. On similar terms, the washing of hands or cups or dishes is not a problem in itself. But woe to us if our external ablutions make us blind to the uncleanness we carry within!

Most of us, if we look closely, are likely to recognise something of ourselves some of the items on the Lord’s list: ‘fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly’. Murder and theft are pretty clear-cut: if we commit them, and are found out, we shall be sent to prison: we know! We are likewise conditioned to sort self-indulgent lust under the heading ‘unclean’. But do we think of ourselves as defiled when we squint angrily at a colleague at work who seems to be more successful than us; when, again and again, we tell some old story designed to reveal our own excellent qualities to an admiring audience; when we act foolishly, without deliberation, and so squander opportunities offered us by the Lord to accomplish his will? These, says the Lord, are realities on which our inward gaze should be fixed. Once we get stuck into a real engagement with such uncleanness in ourselves, we shall be infinitely more charitable with regard to the failings of our neighbour. We shall be putting first things first. And then we can, in addition, add whatever extra observance we like as a free gift of love, whether it is blessing ourselves with holy water on coming home from Tesco’s, or setting up a direct debit to Oxfam, or observing First Fridays, or whatever. Let us be challenged by the Lord’s words. Let us also take courage. He gives us the grace we need to fight and emerge victorious. After all, God is our Father, as we have just been reminded: ‘By his own choice he has made us his children’. May our renewed lives ever more show forth our gratitude for this great gift. Amen.