Sunday Scripture: The law of God
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
By Terrance Callan
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15:2-5; James 1: 17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.
All of us who believe in God try to do God’s will. But the history of the human race and our personal histories show that we are often mistaken in our understanding of God’s will. We must be very careful not to confuse our own will with God’s.
In the reading from the Gospel according to Mark, the Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus why His disciples eat without washing their hands and thus do not follow the tradition of their ancestors. In answer Jesus accuses the Pharisees and scribes of clinging to human tradition and disregarding God’s commandment. Then He goes on to explain that the human tradition of washing hands before eating is unnecessary because nothing that enters someone from outside can make that person impure. It is evils that come from within that make someone impure. These are the things, it is implied, which are forbidden by God’s law.
The reading from the Book of Deuteronomy makes a similar point. In this reading Moses begins to announce the commandments of God to the people and tells them not to add to them or subtract from them. Thus Moses also warns against putting human tradition in the place of God’s commands. But in addition to doing this, Moses praises the commandments of God. He says that by observing these commandments, Israel will impress other nations as wise and intelligent. And he sees God’s gift of the law to Israel as evidence of God’s closeness to Israel.
The reading from the Letter of James does not explicitly speak of God’s law. But when this reading is taken together with the first and third readings, its statement that every worthwhile gift, every genuine benefit comes from above, can be understood as referring to the law as one of the things that come from God. And the word that brings us to birth, that has taken root in us, is the word of the Gospel, including Jesus’ affirmation of the law of God. This we must do. Looking after orphans and widows in distress and keeping oneself unspotted by the world can then be seen as specifications of the law of God.
These readings call upon us to distinguish between the law of God and human laws and suggest that the law of God is to be found in Scripture. The only explicit example of human law given is the identification of some Jewish practices of purification as human tradition in the reading from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ rejection of them on the basis that nothing entering someone from outside can make that person impure could be a basis for rejecting not only the human tradition of purification, but also the divine law about clean and unclean food. Mark seems to understand it this way in a part of the passage not included in this reading (see 7:19). According to Mark, Jesus not only rejected human additions to God’s laws, but also some of God’s laws themselves.
The New Testament as a whole makes it clear that God’s laws regarding clean and unclean food are not incumbent on Gentile Christians. But no other New Testament writer bases this on the idea that Jesus rejected this part of God’s laws.
Callan is a faculty member at the Athenaeum of Ohio.