By Father Donald Dilger
First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Response: Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5; Second Reading: James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27: Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The first reading is an excerpt from the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth scroll of the Torah –which is the correct name for the first five books of the Bible. They are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The word ‘Torah’ means ‘teaching, revelation, law.’ The name Christians commonly use for these five books is ‘Pentateuch.’ The name is derived from two Greek words meaning ‘five’ and ‘scroll’ or the tubes in which the scrolls were stored. A book of the Hebrew Scriptures is named by its first word or words in Hebrew. Translated into English the title of the fifth book is ‘These are the words.’ The Greek/English word ‘Deuteronomy’ is derived from the Greek version of Deuteronomy 17:18. Translated into English, “When the king sits on the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a copy of this law, (in Greek, deuteronnomium or ‘second law.’ This is how Deuteronomy became the universally accepted name for this book of which the king was ordered to make a copy. Kings rarely, if ever, had the skill of writing or reading. There were trained professionals with these skills — the scribes. The scribes who composed and edited Deuteronomy were Levites.
The first reading is part of a discourse attributed to Moses speaking to the Israelites. To get their attention he refers to a massacre, omitted in our reading, commanded by the Lord when the Israelites fell into idolatry in the Plains of Moab — northwest of the Dead Sea. This horrible story is told in Numbers 25:1-18. Moses adds further motivation to rivet their attention on his words, “The Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” One wonders how much of the terror really comes from the Lord. Does it rather originate from fanatical Levites attributing to God their own mentality and its cruel execution? Leaving the motivation for listening behind, the discourse begins, “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live . . . .” The rest is standard creedal material of the Levitical style prominent throughout Deuteronomy. Keeping the commandments of the Lord, says Moses, will gain them respect as “a great nation, a wise and intelligent people.” That holds true of any nation. This reading was selected to accompany today’s gospel in which Jesus rebukes the lawyers/scribes who find loop-holes for their clients enabling them to evade doing the commandments of the Lord.
Psalm 15 continues the theme of living by the commandments of the Lord. Doing so will make one righteous, as the people’s response points out, “The one who does justice (righteousness) will live in the presence of the Lord.” The rest of the verses give some detail how righteousness is put into action. It is all about love of neighbor. Do not slander, nor harm, nor insult. Do not lend money at interest (usury). Accept no bribe. Honor those who fear (revere) the Lord. Those who follow these commandments shall never be disturbed.
The Letter of James presents a series of instructions on many issues. In the context of today’s second reading the author has been speaking about temptation. He rejects the idea that God tempts us. Nor does he blame the devil. So who is to blame? The source is the individual tempted, “lured by his own desire.” That no evil can come from God leads to the beginning of our reading, “All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, from the Father of lights.” This refers to the creation hymn of Genesis 1. The most notable part of this reading is James’ definition of true religion. “Religion pure and undefiled before God is this — to care for orphans and widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself spotted from this world.”
The gospel of the day presents Mark’s catechesis on the ancient taboo of ritual purity (cleanness) or ritual impurity (uncleanness). This is not about hygiene but about avoidance of certain people, places, objects, and foods (kosher or non-kosher). The difficulty of observing the rules of clean and unclean is obvious from Leviticus 11 through 18. The rules could be a foundation for developing severe scrupulosity. The ever watchful scribes, self-appointed watchdogs, notice that the disciples of Jesus did not follow the custom of a ritual washing of hands before eating. Washing hands before eating is normal for us, but hygiene was not the concern of the scribes. They know that Jesus is the leader, so they confront him about it. Mark inserts an explanation for his Gentile converts explaining the various washings that Jewish people do to observe ritual purity. Jesus lashes into his critics with a reference to Isaiah 29:13, “Well did Isaiah prophesy (speak the word of God) about you hypocrites.” The original meaning of the Greek noun ‘hypocrite’ is an actor on stage wearing a mask. Here it would be best translated as ‘phony.’ Our reading omits a more compelling reason why Jesus verbally attacked them. As learned lawyers interpreting the Torah, they found loopholes by which adult children could avoid the obligations of the fourth commandment, “Honor the father and they mother.”
Jesus reverts to the matter of clean and unclean as he speaks to the crowd. In Mark’s mind this turn to the crowd indicates that Mark is catechizing his Christian community about a major question in early Christianity. How many of the Torah laws of clean and unclean apply to Christians? This question became such a contentious issue that in the year 49-50 the apostles called a council in Jerusalem to settle the issue. See Acts 15:1-29. Twenty years later when Mark wrote his gospel the matter was still unsettled. That is why he includes this story. Jesus’ teaching cuts to the core, “Hear me and understand. Nothing that enters the body from the outside (like food) can defile a person. Evil thoughts, unchastity, stealing, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, sexual license, envy, blasphemy, arrogance. All these come from inside and they do defile.” Mark adds an editorial comment which is omitted in our reading. “Thus he declared all foods clean.” He settled the issue for his Christian community.