As with so many readings from Sacred Scripture, there are certain pitfalls that we should avoid in our hearing the Word today and discerning the Spirit’s invitation to understand the its fuller meaning (sensus plenior).
One very dangerous trap is to slip into some kind of supercessionist interpretation of the First Reading (Deut 4:1-2, 6-8) in light of today’s Gospel (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 22-23). It is easy to see how one might mistakenly believe that the people of Israel misunderstood God’s plans and intention in the form of the Law presented to them by Moses. This version of the story suggests that for centuries people have been missed the mark and were inappropriately concerned about exterior and trivial matters (hand washing, etc.) in the way represented by the Pharisees’ concerns in the Gospel. It wasn’t until Jesus appeared on the scene, the Incarnate Word and fully God, that the “record was set straight.”
But this is not a correct reading of what is transpiring here. Though our First Reading does highlight the origin of the Law, we do not believe that our Jewish sisters and brothers and their ancestors misunderstood God’s commandments. It is not that everything that came before was wrongly interpreted and off base. Nowhere does Jesus say that the Law was wrong or bad, but rather its interpreters and self-appointed enforcers are the ones who act badly and misunderstand.
Another common trap is to interpret Jesus’s response to the religious leaders of his time as license to do whatever we please. In a way not unlike the history of over-emphasizing or over-spiritualization Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes, some may simply domesticate this Gospel account and read it as “well, Jesus basically says that the laws aren’t important, what I do externally doesn’t really matter,” and so on.
However, this is also not the point. We are called to be integrated people. To be Christians in the true sense is to incorporate (literally, to bring into the body) that what we believe and profess. Jesus’s teaching in this Gospel passage is not encouragement to compartmentalize our lives and faith.
Today’s Gospel can be understood according to a hermeneutic of the distinction between “means” and “ends.” The Law itself is not problematic, but overtime interpreters of the Law have forgotten its true purpose: that it is a human tool given to women and men in order to better maintain the covenant with God, which requires justice and mercy for others, care for the downtrodden and forgotten, a preferential option for the poor.
What has happened instead is the treatment of the Law as an end in itself rather than the means toward maintaining right relationship constitutive of the Covenant. This is what Moses predicts others will see when they see the Law lived out among the people of Israel. Moses believes observers will 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?”
Yet the actions of the inheritors of the Law are in direct contrast and observers, not the least of which is Jesus himself, sees not justice but injustice and abuse.
This is what compels Christ to call them hypocrites:
“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.”
You disregard the point of God’s Law, treating it as the ultimate end and not the means that God intended. Your new god is human tradition and interpretation, not justice and righteousness.
In this way, we might say that Jesus critiques the “hearers of the word” who do not do the word that James admonishes in our Second Reading today (James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27).
The Hebrew word for “word,” Dabar, bears both a static and active meaning. In a sense, James’s exhortation for us to be doers of the word is redundant in this light. It should go without saying that conforming to the word requires action, but it’s clear that need to emphasize this explicitly suggests that in fact people aren’t living or doing the word.
Rather than commit oneself to painstaking adherence to dietary or other customs and laws, as if God desired this, James echoes Jesus’s message to us in the Gospel about what God really cares about, if in reverse. Jesus points out all the ways that strict adherence to rules and the letter of the law does not account for what is really upsetting to God:
…evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.
James offers us a clue, a reminder of what is important, what it looks like to be a doer and not just a static or passive hearer of the word:
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.
There are many ways that we too can mistake means for ends, or as St. Augustine classically put it, mistaking the Uti for the Frui, that which is used for that which is enjoyed or loved. Jesus is calling us back to the true role of the Law, that it should serve humanity and not the other way around.