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B R E A K O P E N T H E W O R D
Dt 4:1-2, 6-8 Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27 Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In a mid-1960s poll of American Catholics, a question was asked: “Which is the more important law: love of neighbor or not eating meat on Friday?” To the horror of Moral Theologians and parish catechists, the majority responded, “Not eating meat on Friday.” Today’s three readings challenge us, more than half a century later, to reexamine and prioritize the rules we hold.
We hear this weekend at Mass: “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” Those who keep these “statutes and decrees” will experience a long, happy, fulfilling life. What else could one ask for?
Law-keeping goes back as far as scripture goes back. But keeping religious laws didn’t always provide us a ticket for getting into heaven, as many modern Christians believe. The author of Deuteronomy, writing about 600 years before the birth of Christ, clearly tells his readers why they’re to keep God’s laws: “that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which Yahweh, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” Since there’s only this life, then we should make the most of it. Don’t waste time to examine the situation, this will only mess things up.
Our Jewish ancestors knew nothing of heaven or hell as we conceive it. Such a belief didn’t enter Judaism until the century before Jesus’ birth, when some Pharisees received the insight we find in the first chapter of Wisdom. They began to realize that if we build a proper relationship with Yahweh in this life, the eternal Yahweh will continue that relationship into eternity. This was a paradigm shift in how folks began to think about religious laws and the prioritizing thereof.
However, the author of the letter of James, later reminds his community, we can’t just sit around meditating on God’s laws and regulations – navel-gazing want get us very far. Laws are of no benefit to us or to others unless we’re concretely carrying them out. “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves,” he writes. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before our God Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” If our hearing and meditation do not lead to action for others, then they are worthless and have not helped us achieve that happy, fulfilled life that eventually morphs into eternal life.
Have a great week!