A number of years ago I went down to Washington, D.C. to visit the Supreme Court. I had seen it numerous times on the March for Life and on television but I had never been inside. They actually had tour-guides back then who would take you around the building and into the court itself. That part was fascinating.
After the guide explained the procedures for hearings before the court she moved to the art work in the building. On the top of the north and south side walls of the courtroom were friezes portraying figures associated with the great and important milestones in human history in the development of law codes and legal systems.
The guide explained the need for legal systems, how they help to order societies for the common good and promote justice. One of the figures on the south side wall was Moses holding the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.
The readings for this Sunday’s liturgy deal with the Mosaic law and various aspects related to it. The first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy has Moses speaking to the people of Israel about the law. It was given by God to the people as a sign of his covenant with them. Moses is the intermediary who receives the law on behalf of the people and puts it in writing. The torah, which means instruction or sometimes translated as the “law,” includes not only the Ten Commandments but the first five books of the Scriptures (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). These books have been traditionally associated with Moses.
In today’s reading Moses encourages the people to live by the law because it is a gift from God. The law is extolled in the Old Testament as tied to the covenant. God loves his people and offers them the law as a good way to live their lives and to care for one another as well as others living in their land. Particular care is to be given to the most needy in society: the widow, orphan and alien/stranger/foreigner.
So Moses encourages the people to rejoice in the law as it reflects this relationship. Living the law will be a sign to the nations who will say: “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.” Moses closes with two rhetorical questions tying God’s care for his people with the giving of the law. He says: “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 statues and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”
Jesus was born into the covenant of Israel and the law was important in his life as it was for all the Jewish people. The same can be said of the apostles and early disciples. When we read the Gospels, the law and the covenantal relationship with Israel abound. At one point when Jesus is questioned on the law he says: “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”
At another time he emphasizes its import saying that not an iota of the law should be changed until all things have taken place. At other times the authority of the law-giver is taken upon Jesus himself – for example his interpretation of the sabbath laws or some of the food laws.
The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy comes from the Gospel of Mark. Some Pharisees and scribes question Jesus about the disciples who are not rigorously observing the purification laws. This type of situation is not limited to this incident as we see this situation elsewhere in the gospels. Jesus addresses them saying that they are elevating “human traditions” to the level of covenant. So he chastises them saying: “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.”
He then goes on to say that which is truly vice comes from the heart, from the inside of the person, from his/her interior life. Notice that when Jesus gives examples, most of these are related to the Ten Commandments: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Jesus’ teaching here does not challenge the law but makes a distinction between law and traditions. At the heart of this teaching is the call for interiorization of the law. Jesus calls the Pharisees and scribes “hypocrites.” The word is the Greek word for “actor.” Their understanding of the law may be learned but it is superficial. Jesus challenges them, and us, to go deeper into our understanding of God’s law and his way.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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