Having completed a long tour through John 6, the Lectionary returns to Mark, with a dispute between Jesus, the Pharisees and some scribes (experts in the law) over rules to assure purity when eating. The readings present something of a paradox. The first reading, the beginning of the prayer that Jews are to recite every day (the Shema’, Hear, O Israel) heralds the beauty of the law given to Israel and its observance as a sign of gratitude for the promise of the land. The responsorial psalm describes a person who lives justly before God, and James summons people to care for the widow and the orphan, a frequent motif in Israel’s law. Yet in the Gospel Jesus criticizes Pharisaic observance and says that interior dispositions alone determine true purity.
The Gospel presents a constant danger of contrasting Christianity as a religion of love and interior conversion to legalistic Judaism. What it recounts is clearly an inner-Jewish dispute. The Pharisees were primarily a lay group dedicated to strict observance of the temple regulations for purity in their daily lives as a sign that every aspect of life could be holy. They developed a series of traditions to build a fence around the Law, so that the Law itself would never be violated. In response Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition by citing Is. 29:13, where the prophet castigates the tendency to teach as dogma mere human precepts.
Tradition is essential not only to human life but to all religion as the narratives, rituals and beliefs of a community are handed on and adapted to new situations. But the Gospel warns against the tendency inherent in every religion to equate traditional human precepts with God’s will. The Jewish-Christian letter of James, the second reading for the next five Sundays, captures the spirit of traditional Jewish piety, in which love of God is to be translated into deeds of loving kindness toward the vulnerable members of the community. Against this there is no law.
In the Gospel Jesus speaks not to the Pharisees and scribes, but to his disciples, warning them of those evils that can pollute the human heart and destroy social relationships. Though these sound a bit like the coming episodes of television talk shows presided over by various Jerrys and Jennys, they remain a frightening warning to would-be followers of Jesus. As summer vacations draw to an end, preachers might use these readings to challenge people to renewal by examining those traditional ways of acting and thinking that reflect mere human precepts instead of God’s will, and summon them to look into their own hearts, making perhaps a list of those destructive attitudes that can infect even the hearts of those closest to Jesus.