SUNDAY, TWENTY SECOND WEEK IN ORDINARY TIME
Dt 4:1-2,6-8; Ps 15:2-5; Jas 1:17-18,21-22,27; Mk 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF LAWS IN RELIGION?
Religion and laws go hand in hand. We see laws and commandments in all world religions. Buddhist religious law is found in the Sutras, Hindu law in the Vedas, Islamic law in the Quran and Hadith, Jewish law in Tanach, Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash, and the Christian law in the Bible. All these laws have a purpose – that people may believe the truths of the religion and live a good moral life.
God made a covenant with the people of Israel and gave them laws and commandments to sustain and strengthen the covenantal relationship between them. He wanted them to believe in the truths that he revealed about himself and be righteous in conduct. These laws given by God are found in the first five books of the Old Testament. The first reading today is taken from the book of Deuteronomy which is the last of these books. The word “Deuteronomy” means “Second Law” since the book contains a kind of revision of all that God had done in favour of his people on their journey through the desert. Moses reminds the people of all the laws before they enter into the Promised land which he would not enter, and urges them to be faithful to the covenantal relationship with God whose love and forbearance they had experienced.
The Gospel tells us how the Pharisees and scribes relentlessly opposed Jesus for not being faithful to the Jewish laws and traditions. These Pharisees were a group of people with their origins dating back to about a hundred and thirty years before Jesus. While many Jews abandoned their religion on account of persecution by the pagan rules, this group of people vowed to remain faithful to God and their religion and to scrupulously observe the Law which many people violated. They called themselves ‘Pharisees’, i.e., “separated ones”. Eventually, however, they developed into a group of proud, arrogant people who boasted of their holiness and despised everyone else. They went on adding rules upon rules to the Law of Moses, which made it extremely burdensome for the common people. The law which was given by God to the Israelites was to build up a covenantal relationship with him but now it had turned into a blind practice devoid of its high spiritual ideals.
We see in the Gospel Jesus admonishing the scribes and Pharisees for their pride and self-righteousness. They thought themselves holy, the only ones with whom God was pleased; they claimed that God was bound to save them since they scrupulously observed the Law in their heart. They were filled with hypocrisy and greed; outwardly they observed the Law; their heart, however, was far from God. Above all, they refused to accept the truth that Jesus taught and tried their best to prevent others from following him. The essence of religion lies within a person; it is lived in one’s striving to keep one’s mind clean and heart pure, lest unclean thoughts and unhealthy feelings lead us to do what is sinful. What matters in religion is to give one’s own heart to God; external rules may help, but they do not make a person truly religious just by themselves.
Love is at the heart of religion and all its Laws. The Pharisees added hundreds of rules to the Ten Commandments; Jesus instead, reduced the Ten Commandments to a single rule. He gave us, the people of the New Testament, the New Law that was at the heart of the Old Law: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 13:34) Because God loved the people of Israel, he guided them with laws and commandments. So too does he love us and want us to be in a loving relationship with him. The one who is innocent of wrongdoing and pure of heart, who has not given himself to vanities or sworn falsely, he will receive the blessing of the Lord and be justified by God his saviour. (Ps 23) To be justified by God we need to strive to follow his commandment of love, through a constant process of purification of our mind and heart. Rather than giving importance to externals it is significant to evaluate our inner attitudes especially towards God and our neighbour. Only then our external activities will be meaningful (Read Jas 2:1-13).
Response: O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
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