God’s Precepts Versus Human Precepts

by Susanna Mak
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8

James 1:17-18, 21B-22. 27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The phrase “race to the bottom” has, unfortunately, become one of the dominant characteristics of contemporary society. In a society where “I-specialists” are rampant and the “me-first” attitude reigns, people tend to operate with an individualistic mindset rather than a communal one. When everyone constantly tries to trample over each other to get to the top, wherever that is, the cohesive fabric of society is effectively torn and what’s left is just brokenness, isolation, and hopelessness. No wonder that in our society, so many have silently fallen through the cracks, while others continue to live according to their desires.

Catholic Christians are constantly called to action; to be the salt and light of the world (ref. Mt 5:13-16). In baptism, we say “yes” to love and “no” to worldly attitudes. From that day forth, we live in Christ and for Christ, that is, a life of love and sacrifice. Faith is not something airy-fairy but a call to action. It is certainly not enough to say, “I believe” if our faith has no effect on our actions, words, and thoughts. This week’s readings succinctly sum up what our Christian faith is about: be “doers”, not “hearers”, of the word and bear witness to God’s love in all we say and do (Jas 1:22, ref. Dt 4:6, ref. Mk 7:6-7).

In the Old Testament, God patiently teaches the Israelites the “statutes and ordinances” and commands that they must not “add ... nor subtract from it” (Dt 4:1-2). These rules are extremely detailed and specific, dictating every aspect of their lives; however, they all point to their ultimate destination, the Promised Land. By observing these ordinances, God explains, they “may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land” (Dt 4:1). This is both a promise to the Israelites that they will possess the Promised Land and a prefiguration of God’s kingdom. The Israelites are taught as if they were little children as their faith and understanding of God’s precepts are rather immature. However, if they persevere, they will become a shining beacon among all nations: “Observe them carefully, for this is your wisdom and discernment in the sight of the peoples, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and discerning people’” (Dt 4:6). God is telling His people, firstly, that they will bear witness to His glory, and secondly, to be patient and to place their trust in Him, as in the days of their exodus from Egypt.

In the New Testament, Jesus further reveals the treasure hidden in God’s statutes and ordinances. It is, in fact, more harmful to pay lip service to these rules if the heart is untouched or unaltered. In the Gospel of Mark, the Pharisees and scribes, once again, decide to challenge Jesus. They accuse His disciples of eating their meals with unwashed hands, hence, breaking Moses’ law of purification. Jesus, noticing their hardness of heart, said to them, “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition. How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition” (Mk 7:8-9). It seems that the Pharisees and scribes have weaponized Moses’ law to empower themselves, and perhaps, to “trick” Jesus into admitting fault. Their argument against Jesus only reveals their shallow and self-serving understanding of their own faith and God’s precepts. Jesus counters their argument by explaining that “everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile … All these evils come from within and they defile (Mk 7:18,23).

In truth, we must be honest with ourselves, and let God’s light reveal what’s in our heart. Are we, like the Pharisees and scribes, merely “hearers” of God’s word, or as St. James teaches, “doers” who “care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27)? When we claim that we are Catholics, we are not just “telling” the world who we are, but more importantly, living as such, “ to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8). Let us put our faith in action and begin healing our divided and broken world.