It is tempting to present our own views, or even those collective views held by an entire society, as those ordained by God. It can be difficult to discern the difference between what is God’s intention for human flourishing and what is our normative presumptions formed by human culture. This is the case in today’s Gospel (Mark 7:1-13).
The encounter is a familiar one. Jesus is confronted by religious leaders in his community about why he and his followers do not appear to follow the purity laws of their religion. Instead of prioritizing the ablution rites typically required before eating, Jesus and his followers simply dine with those gathered (with the dining companions themselves viewed with suspicion by the religious leaders).
Prefaced by a quote from the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus’s response is classic:
“You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
He went on to say,
“How well you have set aside the commandment of God
in order to uphold your tradition!”
Earlier in the Gospel Jesus made a similar point when he noted that the women and men were not created for the law, but that the law was created for humanity (Mark 2:27). In other words, the purpose of authentic law is to promote human flourishing, what we would say in modern official Catholic teaching is the promotion and protection of the “common good.”
When the law becomes oppressive or and end in itself rather than a means toward the promotion and protection of the common good, then it may in fact be one of these human tradition that Jesus is rallying against in today’s Gospel passage.
Our First Reading also lends a helpful reminder about who God is, who we are, and what we’re called to be. This passage from Genesis (Genesis 1:20-2:4) includes the famous line:
God created [humanity] in his image;
in the divine image he created him;
male and female he created them.
It is reminder that we human beings have been created in the image and likeness of God, which basically means we should strive to be like the one in whose image we have been created. But so often instead of living into the Imago Dei in which we have been formed, we “return the favor” and try to create God in our own image and likeness. We imagine God sanctioning our own priorities, interests, concerns, notions of justice, and even laws. As Jesus points out in today’s Gospel, we are quick to confuse our own interests and traditions for God’s law. And the consequences are dire.
We see this in our own time in very disturbing and powerful ways. Take, for instance, the recent push to disregard the refugees, to block those who are different or perceived as “other” because of their race, religion, or nation of birth. Many good people with ostensibly good intentions have been tricked or even deluded themselves into thinking that such discrimination and clear violations of the scriptural mandate to care for the stranger, orphan, widow, and all the most vulnerable (anawim) are perfectly in keeping with their espoused Christianity.
Or consider the way in which the structural injustices of our society go overlooked or dismissed as superficially “political correctness” whenever they are raised for serious consideration and critique. In those moments one can almost here those who accuse Jesus reappear in their self-righteous dismissal of God’s law in order to maintain their own selfish human tradition.
May we wake up to the ways in which we so cavalierly imagine God according to our image and likeness, which allows us to shape the human traditions we cling to into an unjustified divine mandate like the religious leaders in today’s Gospel. And may we return to the Lord who did not come to be served but to serve; who did not reject anyone but embraced, healed, loved, and forgave all; and who, at nearly every turn, told us “do not be afraid.”