In the first Reading, (Deut 4:1-2. 6-8), Moses urged the people of Israel to take notice and observe the “laws and customs” that the Lord had given to them. These laws represented the presence of God among them. The God who called their great ancestor Abraham from the Chaldean city of Ur and made covenants with him, and who rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and entered into covenant with them at Mount Sinai.
Indeed, the first five books in the Old Testament, (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), are called the Torah, which means Law. Well known passages from the Torah include the Ten Commandments of God, (Ex 20:1-17), and ‘shema Israel’ which states, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart”, (Deut 6:4-6).
To help the people observe the Law, rules and traditions were developed by the teachers of the Law which unfortunately over the years had tended to supplant the essential elements of the Law with what were superficial. Later generations who had no knowledge of the history of the rules and traditions, held them on the same pedestal as the Law. Hence, it is paramount that we intermittently go back to the roots to seek clarity. For instance, when Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, (1962-1965), on the 25th January 1959, he wanted the Church to go back to her roots so that she would be spiritually renewed and reach out to the wider community.
Similarly, the Church in Australia is re-tracing her roots through the promulgation of the Plenary Council by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Australia. This process of the Plenary Council is a golden opportunity for Catholics in Australia to reflect on how a marginal and persecuted Church, during the settlement era, rose to become a mainstream-triumphal Church, and what has led her to be in search of identity in Australian society today. This self-examination will lead us to acknowledge and thank God for the achievements of the Church while, at the same time, naming and apologising for her failures as we move forward in hope.
In the Gospel, (Mk 7:1-8. 14-15. 21-23), Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees the essential elements of the Law of God and the things that are mere superficial. The context was that his disciples were eating without observing the full ritual of washing of hands. According to the Jewish tradition, they were supposed to wash their hands from the elbow downwards. Again, the Jewish tradition instructed people to sprinkle water on themselves each time they returned home from a stroll, or errand, as a way of purification. People are deemed to be defiled, (unclean), if they had wittingly or unwittingly by-passed someone suffering from leprosy or a corpse.
Jesus used the opportunity to clarify to the people that helping the needy does not defile one in the presence of God. Nothing external can make one unclean before God. Rather, it is one’s sinful acts like “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride and folly” which make one unclean before God. Similarly, in Matthew 23:23-26, Jesus criticised the scribes and pharisees for merely focusing their attention on tithing while neglecting the weightier matters of the Law like justice, mercy, and good faith.
In summary, Jesus wants us to turn our hearts to the acts which are pleasing and acceptable to God. These acts include being a caring and responsible person, not being judgemental, being just, surrendering our will to the will of God, going across the aisle to make peace, and reaching out to the people on the margin of the society.
Fr Chinua Okeke CSSp