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The cart of human tradition and the horse of divine Law

On the Readings for Sunday, August 29, 2021

(Image: xandro Vandewalle/


• 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 1226 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 recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are 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. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Carl Olson’s “The external actions found in the Law were meant to lead to an inner awareness of sin and the gift of God’s mercy” say it all. Although it’s Olson’s following interpretation of John that is key to its full meaning. According to the Apostle the Law was intended as a monitor which, if intended to elicit an inner awareness it was virtually unsuccessful except for an apparent select few. Paul’s theology in Romans and Galatians reveals the Law as it stood could not draw from men that interior worship of spirit and truth. That remained to be fulfilled quoting Olson’s text insofar as, “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”. It is the Word himself, Christ alone that elicits that interior motivation of intellect and will not by rational deliberation, rather initially by the sentient truth of divine love revealed to us in the Word’s passion and cross. An object of truth identified by sentient apprehension [all apprehension involves intellect] that supersedes deliberation and supporting evidence. That is seen in calling himself Truth, since all truth is secondary to that Truth who is God. Evidence of who is self generated. Divine Law revealed for us in the Word made flesh is rightly positioned by Olson as the horse that pulls the cart of tradition.

    • Allow me to modify my comment. Unquestionably the words of Christ and actions give the intellect a ‘jump start’ so to speak that lead us to apprehend [as referenced by the author in 1 Jn. 3:19-21] what is essentially self evident truth, his divinity.

      • I wonder at the idea that the Law was not ‘successful.’ God’s essential ‘word’ is found in all creation as well as in Law. God’s Incarnate Word differs in magnitude and purpose but seems less so in essential kind from the Written word of Law which God himself gave. Surely God gave His Word of Law to keep some minds and hearts directed to Him, to guide actions, and to keep hearts and minds open to His existence, his commands, and his care and covenant with men. Whether or not the same people successfully followed the Law does not detract from God’s purpose or reason of God Giving Himself to us through it.

        Sure, the Old Law may not have led to heart changing, but it surely may have done exactly that. Some minds must have been led to contemplate, question, wonder, and to discourse. (The ‘lost and found’ Jesus, in the temple among the elders, likely discussed the Law with others who also found it worthy of study.) The development of intellect through aquisition of knowledge or understanding surely could have led some Israelites to heart-softening and to a semblance of truth (albeit incomplete) which only later flowered, was completed, and was perfectly fulfilled in Christ.

        • “It was virtually unsuccessful except for an apparent select few”. Not a reflexion on the Law rather the response. I had in mind for the select few, the Blessed Mother, Moses, Judith, Elijah, Jacob, Abraham, Lot, Joseph sold in slavery, Joseph of the Holy Family, Deborah, Jonathan, Hosea, Joshua, Gideon, King David, Isaiah. Whew! My writing hand is getting tired. You can guess the rest Meiron.

        • Meiron, insofar as knowledge and responsibility to the precepts of the Decalogue, it is from all time universal knowledge including Adam and Eve, Abel and Cain, Jonah, Abraham and Sarah. As a consequence all men are subject to judgment in accord with those eternal commandments inherent to their nature. Catholic Catechism 2070 The Decalogue contains a privileged expression of the natural law: “From the beginning, God had implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law. Then he was content to remind him of them. This was the Decalogue” (St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 4, 15, 1: PG 7/l, 1012). What the Apostle correctly argues then in Romans and Galatians is the historically manifest failure of Man to respond to that natural law within, even after reminded through Moses and the requirement that God reveal himself in Christ suffer death on the Cross that the Father grace us with moral strength to live those commandments in spirit and in truth.

  2. Thank you for breaking open the scripture each week.

    The Gospel for the Feast of St. Augustine (celebrated on 8/28 according to the ‘old’ liturgical calendar) is taken from Matthew 5:13-19 and contains this:

    “Do not think that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled. He therefore that shall break one of these least commandments, and shall so teach men, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but he that shall do and teach, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

    God does speak to us in many wonderful ways!

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