Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Deuteronomy is structured as a series of "speeches" by Moses, providing historical context for the Law/Instruction received from God and providing a framework (blessings/curses) for all that is to follow leading up to the Exile.
Our reading today begins: Israel, "shama" (Listen/hear/obey/pay attention/give heed) to the choq and mishpat . The first of these is translated laws, decrees, limits, statute. It comes from the root to cut or hack, and includes the idea of engraving (making a permanent decree), while mishpat means to pass judgement and can also mean law or rule, expectations of justice. The command to do the Lord's will is connected to a specific promise: "so that you may live to enter and occupy the land the Lord is giving you." Note the mundane and temporal connection to the Law--it is not so that one can "die and go to heaven" but rather that one "can live and enter the Land." Both verses 2 and 5 declare this same promise. The Torah as part of the gift of God's loving nearness is expressed eloquently in v 7&8 "For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has law and rules as perfect as this Teaching that I set before you this day?"
James picks up in the first chapter of his letter. having warned his readers that sin comes not from God's temptations but from the epithymia (desire, longing, craving, lust = the passions) within. We pick up today with the declaration that every good and perfect gift is from above; the Judeo-Christian recognition of God's initiative in the face of our struggle with sin. As the passions give birth to sin, so God's word of truth gives birth to His people--the first fruits of His creatures. This implanted word has the power to save our lives, but only if we "do the word.'' The ancient teachers all understood the difference between hearing as a passive exercise and an empty cognitive process as opposed to integrating what is heard and acting upon it. It's like looking at yourself in the mirror and then forgetting what you see. This will be at the heart of next week's famous verse--"faith without works is dead." Torah is the Law of Freedom, not freedom from obedience and doing good, but the freedom to believe, trust and obey in word and action.
How better to understand our excerpts from Mark 7 on clean and unclean? The Jewish Bible contains much on ritual purity which is not the same as moral purity. A poor analogy might be a dress code, where someone is barred entrance to a particular place because they are not wearing a tie. They are not in an "appropriate" condition to enter. The ritual purity laws were concerned with people in good moral standing who were otherwise off limits or barred entrance to the holy places. Mark 7, in the extended version, mixes two discussions, ritual purity and Jewish dietary practices, culminating with Jesus' declaration on moral purity, that is, what makes someone impure is what comes from their heart (and He lists some of the deadly passions, or sinful desires, which lurk within each of us.
Jesus lists a series of sins and one notes that they appear prominently in the Nine Paths literature as well. Jesus clearly contrasts sins with the pious practices of religious groups, in this case the Pharisees. In our own time, we are familiar with debates about eating meat on Friday, dancing or drinking, and more recently recycling and various hot social topics are fodder for argument. Jesus' point is that one can not raise these to the level of the deadly passions. One cannot negate God's word and replace it with "our group's particular worries and concerns."
Jews are no more apt to embrace rules to justify themselves than any other group, and they were certainly not the worst offenders in the time of Jesus. If our religious practices are one way of asserting our identity and making sense of life, they are not the only way. Any parent who has shopped for clothing in the wrong store quickly learns that there are dress codes in school--one the official school code and the other the "word of mouth/traditions" of the children--and it is often the latter which brings down the greater pain. Humans create their own laws of unfreedom all the time. It is part of the fallen condition. Religion is but one place to do this.
In summary, we are confronted today with reflections on the place of law (Torah instruction) in the time of Jesus and in our own day. It requires courage to look in that mirror James speaks of and see our face, to discover the particular passions within our souls. It takes hard work to remember what we saw there and battle against it. And it takes the grace of the Holy Spirit to transform us into Children of God. In the mean time, Jesus warns, we must be aware of our tendency to emphasize the wrong things--our own 'traditions and practices'--while losing touch with the real evil at work within us. The Torah and Tradition of Israel, like the Gospel and Tradition of Ancient Christianity, are at the heart of the journey from enslavement to the passions into children of God, embracing His instruction and acting on it. No one is saved in a moment, it is always a long, challenging process of turning hearing into doing. If the road seems overlong, do not despair. It is God who will accomplish within you the new birth in Jesus.