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The cart of human tradition and the horse of divine Law

On the Readings for Sunday, September 2, 2018


• Dt 4:1-2, 6-8
• Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5
• Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
• Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Listen carefully, my child,
to your master’s precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart.” So begins the Rule of Saint Benedict, written almost 1500 years ago. Taken from the fourth chapter of Proverbs, it is a pithy summation of today’s readings, all containing admonitions to hear and obey the word of God.

The first reading describes the beginning of the solemn and binding promulgation of the Law by God, through Moses, to the people of Israel. This supernatural gifting took place within the liturgical celebration and it was an essential part of the establishment of a covenant between the Lord and his people.

In receiving “the statutes and decrees,” the Israelites were formed into a “great nation.” The laws and commandments were not mere guidelines, but the creation of an identity and the making of a divine mission: “that you may live and may enter in and take possession of the land…”

Moving forward many centuries, we hear of yet another conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. This dispute over Jewish legal customs takes up most of Mark 7 and is the continuation of a conflict initiated when Jesus healed the paralytic and then later ate with “sinners and tax collectors” (Mk. 2:16). The issue of unclean or unwashed hands was not about courtesy or personal hygiene, but, as Mark explains for his many non-Jewish readers, of ritual purification. In fact, there seems to be a note of sarcasm in the Evangelist’s description of “the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.”

The Law had described the necessary purification to be observed by the priests (cf. Ex. 30:17-21). Over time, the rabbis and scribes had developed an oral tradition meant to clarify, explain, and otherwise provide legal interpretation of the Law. (By the sixth century, this oral tradition was eventually put into writing and is known as the Mishnah, with additional commentary, the Talmud.) Although meant to protect and clarify the Law, this “tradition of the elders” had become an obstruction. Rather than providing a legal argument, as an equal would, Jesus strongly denounced the hypocrisy of a hollow, external practice: “The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

The Law, as Paul stated so often, was meant to be a teacher and guide. But it had become secondary, even ignored, within a labyrinth of human laws and traditions. Was Jesus, as some Christians today argue, condemning tradition altogether? No, he was condemning “human tradition”, which the Apostle Paul also condemned (Col. 2:8). But Paul also exhorted the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). And then there is the little matter of Jesus telling the disciples at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me”, which is an obvious establishment of a most significant and singular tradition.

The problem with the Pharisees is that they had turned matters upside down; the cart of human tradition was pulling the horse of divine Law. The external actions found in the Law were meant to lead to an inner awareness of sin and the gift of God’s mercy. God’s word is meant to change man’s heart, which is the source of not only his emotions, but also his intellect and will (cf. 1 Jn. 3:19-21).

The Epistle of James explains that God “willed to give us birth by the word of truth,” planting within us the seed of salvation. Obeying that word is a matter of freely choosing to respond to what is heard (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 144), and in so responding, we become doers. Those who really hear God obey him; those who love God’s word become conformed to the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.

“Receive willingly,” continues the Rule, “and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.”

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the August 30, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1153 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His new book Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021), is published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.