We are called to hear, obey and understand

We cannot avoid laws, norms, rituals, and practices in our society, family and Church. These practices are part of our lives. We are taught not to violate the laws and norms.

Aug 28, 2021

                                    Reflecting on our Sunday Readings with Fr Ryan Innas Muthu

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6b-8;
James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

We cannot avoid laws, norms, rituals, and practices in our society, family and Church. These practices are part of our lives. We are taught not to violate the laws and norms. The consequence of the violation is punishment. These ‘violations’ and ‘punishments’ start in the family. When we were children, we listened to and obeyed our parents, hopefully out of love and not out of fear of punishment. Gradually, as we grew older, we realised that the objective of the house rules was an expression of our parents’ love and concern for us and was for our own good. Eventually, we experience this love in the continuous sacrifices that our parents made for us.

Likewise, in the first reading today, the book of Deuteronomy invites us to look at the motive for the laws which God had for His people in terms of His love for them. God gave the laws to Israelites to express His unconditional love and concern, and this was for their own good. According to the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites did not view these laws as impositions from above that had to be followed to avoid punishment. Instead, they saw these “statutes and decrees” as a personal expression of God’s love for them. The reading tells us that they knew that He cared for them, thus, His laws were an expression of his love and they kept them in order to respond to and respect HIS love.

However, the Deuteronomist emphasised that the “statutes and decrees” would be useless if nobody bothered to follow them.

As stated in Deut 4:1 “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you”. According to this context, the word “hear” in Hebrew is s?m?, which means “pay attention to, perceive, understand, or obey”. The great call here is to worship and identify the people of Israel as God’s people which is very much rooted in “s?m?” which is generally called the “Shema” (Deut 6:4-5). When God wearied of Israel’s persistent sins, He highlighted the distinction between hearing and understanding. The lack of spiritual perception is a mark of God’s judgment on Israel’s sin; they are called to hear and obey, but fail to understand.

Along the way, these qualities of listening, teaching and observing appear to be out of sync with the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus encountered in today’s gospel. By quoting Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes that they are not really listening but only paying lip service to the divine statutes. At the same time, they are also teaching others wrongly, as they “disregard God’s commandments but cling to human tradition” (Mk 7:8). In the eyes of Jesus, the Pharisees and scribes were hypocrites and selfish because they reduced ritual purification to the level of the external only but neglected the internal cleansing. Traditionally, every Jew is required to wash all the parts of the body thoroughly after coming in contact with non-Jews or objects considered unclean.

However, Scripture prescribed the cleansing of the object, body part or entire person for the purposes of sacrifices or priestly service or washing of hands only for the priest before he could eat the meat of animals sacrificed in the temple. But the Pharisees and scribes had extended these norms to the entire Jewish community.

Thus, the entire Jewish community would not eat unless they performed some sort of ritualistic washing before eating. They believed that the unclean hands would result in defilement. Jesus openly tells the Jewish elders that they were observing the wrong thing, as they exaggerated the importance of minor rituals while neglecting the moral aspect and purity of the heart.

Thus, in today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that nothing created by God can make people impure. He says that defilement does not come from outside but from within, from the heart of a person. The evangelist Mark reports these harsh words of Jesus because even the early Christian communities were running the very same serious risk and danger of putting the rules of the people at the same level as the law of God. We too, at times misunderstand the liturgical rites, rubrics, rules and norms of the Church. Our external precepts are supposed to be an expression of what is in the heart and not something only for show. This expression should be based on faith and reciprocal love towards God.

This teaching of Jesus also echoes in today’s second reading, in which, St James invites us to practice the true religion which is pure and undefiled before God, and which means, “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27). Hence, internal conditions, such as a bad attitude make a person impure. What makes a person pure? It is right conduct and doing God’s will, and this ensures that we are not contaminated by the evils of this world. 

--Fr Ryan Innas Muthu is from the Diocese of Malacca-Johore. He is currently the Formator and Scripture lecturer at College General Major Seminary in Penang.

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