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The 22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle B)

Readings:
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
Psalm 15:2-5
James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The Human versus the Divine
Meditating on the Law in the First Reading, Moses saw the danger of human interpretation developing into added traditions that could obscure the original will of God for His people.  That is why the people of God needed one central authority to interpret the spirit of the Law as God intended, and to maintain the authoritative voice of God in the command: "you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it"  (Dt 4:2).  The same command is repeated by Jesus at the end of the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation: "I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words in this prophetic book, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city described in this book" (Rev 22:18-19). 

In the Psalm Reading, the psalmist urges worshippers to repent all human temptations to do wrong in our relationships with others before entering into divine worship in the presence of our holy God.  A holy God deserves a holy people.  The psalmist assures the faithful, "the one who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord." And in the Second Reading, St. James the Just, urges Christians to live in imitation of the divine and holy Christ by being "doers and not just hearers of the word."

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus corrects the Pharisees on their interpretation of what makes one ritually "clean" and fit for worship or ritually "unclean" and a sinner who is unfit.  The Pharisees were the most influential religious party in the first century AD.  They were more powerful than the Sadducees who were mostly composed of the chief priests and the Herodian aristocracy.  As they expanded their authority over all religious matters in the first century BC, the Pharisees began to preach the doctrine that the ritual purity practices that applied to the priests should also be applied to all the covenant people.  They added their own rules for religious customs to the Mosaic Law, making the Law more of a burden for the people and less of a tutor and a guide for holiness.  Jesus chastises them for their hypocritical hard hearts and for their interpretation of the Law that made it more a ritualistic burden than the exercise of right religion and the path to salvation.

The First Reading Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8 ~ An Appeal for Obedience and Extolling the Wisdom of the Law
Moses said to the people: "1 Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.  2 In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to which I command you nor subtract from it.  [..].  6 Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, 'This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.'  7 For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?  8 Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?"

When Moses returned from his two forty-day experiences with God on Mt. Sinai (Ex 24:18; 32:15-16; 34:28-29), he returned with more than the two tablets of the Law engraved by the finger of God.  He also returned with the divine authority to teach the word of God to the people and the Oral Tradition of the Law taught to him by God.  Some of what he was taught he recorded and is found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and other commands were not written down but passed on orally to Aaron the High Priest and the other chief priests concerning the liturgy of worship.  It was with this divinely ordained teaching authority that he addressed the new generation of the Exodus experience that was poised to march forward to take possession of the Promised Land of Canaan in his last three homilies in the Book of Deuteronomy and.

Moses' appeal Shema Israel, "Hear Israel" (or in this case Israel Shema in 4:1) is characteristic of the beginning of a didactic address in Deuteronomy (see 4:1; 5:1; 6:4; 9:1; 20:3 and 27:9).  In this verse, the Hebrew verb "to teach" appears for the first time in the Pentateuch (Weinfeld, The Book of Deuteronomy, page 200). The use of the verb "to teach/ to instruct" in Deuteronomy 4:1 illustrates Moses' mission to be the "teacher of the Law."  Moses is considered Israel's first teacher of the Law.  This is the role for which he is best remembered in Jewish tradition.  In the Second Temple period (during the time Jesus lived), the teaching authority of the hierarchy of the Old Covenant Church was referred to as "the chair of Moses," just as the teaching authority of the New Covenant Church is called "the chair of Peter" (see Mt 23:2).

According to verse 1, obedience to God's commandments grants life.  It is the central theme of this part of Moses' homily that begins and ends with the statement that life for Israel depends on obedience to God's commandments (verses 1 and 40).  In English translations, the Hebrew word torah is often translated as "law"; however, from the prime root horah, "to teach," it is more accurately translated "teaching" or "instruction" (see Dt 1:5; 4:8, 44; 17:18, 19; 27:3, 8, 26; 28:58; 29:28; 31:9, 11, 12, 24; 32:46.  The commandments and prohibitions are not to be merely learned—one must live out the commands by doing them.  The Israelites must do what Moses' teaches so they may survive [live] to enter and take possession of the country which Yahweh, God of your ancestors, is giving you (4:1).  The command to "do" is repeated seven times in 4:1, 5, 6, 13, 14; 5:1; and 6:1.

The promise that to live in obedience to God's law brings "life" is similar for New Covenant believers. The only difference is that our promise is that living in obedience to the law of the New Covenant brings eternal salvation and not merely God's protection in temporal blessings as under the Old Covenant (Lev 26:3-13; Dt 28:1-14).

2 In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to which I command you nor subtract from it.
The warning to guard the words of the Law and not to add or take away from Yahweh's commands and prohibitions is the language of covenant treaties.  The command is found in five Scripture passages:

  1. In Deuteronomy 4:2 at the beginning of Moses' commentary on the observances of the Law of the Sinai Covenant that is written in the covenant treaty format.
  2. In Jeremiah 26:2 where those who come to worship in the Temple are warned to say only what Yahweh has ordered, "omitting not one syllable," in Jeremiah's covenant lawsuit against an apostate Judean kingdom.
  3. The warning not to tamper with the words of God in Proverbs 30:5-6.
  4. The warning not to add or subtract from the account of God's works in Ecclesiastes 3:14.
  5. The final command is found at the end of the body of Sacred Scripture in Revelation 22:18-19, the covenant lawsuit against the generation that rejected the Messiah and the formation of the new covenant document with the restored Israel of the New Covenant Church.

In other words, those who profess loyalty to Yahweh in a covenant relationship cannot practice religion and worship according to their own understanding.

6 Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, 'This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.'  7 For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?  8 Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?"
In addition to "life", God promise is that "wisdom" will be a blessing if the Israelites keep/guard His laws by putting them into practice in the Promised Land.  If future generations of Israelites have the wisdom to continue to live according to God's laws, commands and prohibitions, the Israelites will win the admiration of the surrounding nations for their wisdom and prudence

God's presence with Israel distinguished His people from all other nations of the earth (verses 7).  But what also distinguished Israel from all the other nations was the Law God personally communicated to Israel, and His divine revelation of wisdom in the Law also singled them out from the other nations (verse 8).  The uniqueness of Israel as a nation was tied to:

  1. Israel's proximity to her extraordinary God.
  2. The unique Laws He gave Israel to bind her to Him as His covenant people.
  3. The wisdom imparted to Israel through God's divine Law.

All these unique gifts and blessings continue to be ours in the New Covenant in Christ Jesus, so long as we remain obedient to the Kingdom of the Church which is the vehicle Jesus established to guide us on our journey to our eternal blessings in Heaven.

Responsorial Psalm 15:2-5 ~ Practicing God's Justice
 Response: "The one who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord."
 
2 Whoever walks blamelessly and does justice; who thinks the truth in his heart and slanders not with his tongue.
Response:
3 Who harms not his fellow man, nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor; 4 by whom the reprobate is despised, while he honors those who fear the LORD.
Response:
5 Who lends not his money at usury and accepts no bribe against the innocent.  Whoever does these things shall never be disturbed.
Response:

Psalm 15 is a psalm attributed to David.  In response to the question verse 1, Lord, who may abide in your tent?  Who may dwell on your holy mountain?, the psalmist records a necessary examination of conscience at the entrance to the Temple court.  The worshipper must ask what conduct he has demonstrated that is appropriate for admission in God's holy precincts.  Notice that the emphasis is on virtues relating to love of neighbor:

  1. One who practices justice (verse 2)
  2. One who refrains from slandering or doing harm to another (verse 2b-3)
  3. One who avoids the wicked (verse 4a)
  4. One who keeps company with those who revere the Lord (verse 4b)
  5. One who does not practice taking advantage by charging interest for lending money and does not accept bribes (verse 5a)

Such a person has demonstrated the rightness of heart and conduct to separate oneself from human sin to take part in worshipping the One True God.  It is an examination of conduct and conscience we should all practice before entering the holy court of the celebration of the Mass.

The Second Reading James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27 ~ Act in response to God's Divine Word
Dearest brothers and sisters: 17 All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.  18 He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of Firstfruits of his creatures.  [...].  21b ... humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.  22 Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. [...] 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.    

In verse 17, James affirms Jesus statement in Matthew 7:11 that our heavenly Father gives what is good to His children.  James compares the changing light the universe, created by God who is the Creator of physical light (Gen 1:14-18) and God who is also the source of spiritual light and of everything that is good.  In the spiritual sense, "light" is holiness and truth while "darkness" symbolizes what is evil and debase:

God set the universe in motion and has given the plants and stars their motion and their shadows, which change in accord with their celestial paths.  But unlike the heavenly bodies, which change paths and cast different shadows, there is no variation in God.  God is constant and unchanging through all eternity (Ps 118:1; Heb 13:8; Jn 1:1-5).

18 He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of Firstfruits of his creatures. 
The message of truth is the Gospel of Jesus Christ in which God has revealed to man His plan of salvation, but the message of truth is also the Living Word, Jesus Himself through whom this faithful remnant of Jews and all of us have been reborn into the family of God through our Baptism into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ our Savior (CCC# 168; 684; 1214-15; etc.).  The 1st century Israelites who have embraced Jesus as the promised Messiah became a kind of Firstfruits of all His creation.  The other generation of Israelites that were called the "first-fruits was the Exodus generation.  The night of the Passover in Egypt, God redeemed the "firstborn" of Israel with the blood of a sacrificial lamb/kid (Ex chapter 12).  These Israelites were the "firstfruits" of the Sinai Covenant generation—the holy priesthood of the "first-born of the Old Covenant Church.  In the same way, the blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, redeemed the first of the Israelites to come into the New Covenant in the blood of Jesus the Lamb.  These first believers are also the "firstfruits" of the great human harvest that will be gathered into God's great "storehouse" that is heaven. 

It was no accident of history that Jesus' Resurrection should coincide with the Old Covenant Feast of Firstfruits—a feast that always fell on the day after the first Sabbath of the Holy Week of the Feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread, and which started the count 50 days later to the Feast of Pentecost, which also always fell on a Sunday.  The Old Covenant Sabbath was on Saturday and so this feast was destined to always fall on a Sunday.  This is the way the feast was kept until after Jesus' Resurrection when the Jewish authorities changed the date of this feast, and consequently the Feast of Pentecost which was supposed to come 50 days after Firstfruits, so these 2 feasts would no longer be literally  fulfilled in Jesus' Resurrection and in the coming of the Holy Spirit to the New Covenant Church since they would no longer fall annually on a Sunday [see Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.8.4; Acts 2:1; Leviticus 23:11 & 15].

See Exodus 13:11-16; 1 Peter 1:23; Revelation 14:4.

21b ... humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.  22 Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.
In St. Bede's commentary on St. James' letter, he warns Christians that the first requirement for doing what is good is to confess one's sins and to turn away from evil.  The Bede advises that no one upon whom sin has a hold can ever expect to be an effective conduit for the holy works of God to flow through him and out to the world.  To humbly welcome the living Word, the Christian must submit himself to God by admitting poverty of spirit; by mourning his sins; and by yielding himself meekly into the hands of the Master—the first 3 blessings of the New Covenant Law with which Jesus began His Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (see Mt 5:1-4).  And then it is necessary to act—Christian faith is pro-active not static.  This is what Jesus taught in His great homily when he compared the Christian to a light and to salt in Matthew 5:13-16.  Each is only good if it serves the purpose for which it was created—the same is true with a Christian.  Jesus said, "In the same way your light must shine in people's sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven" (Mt 5:16).

27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James defines pure religion as coming to the help of orphans and widows and in living in holiness and righteousness before God.  We are in the world but not a part of the world—not influenced by the world's value system.  James chooses widows and orphans as his example of those most in need of assistance because in the 1st century AD no other group of people was so utterly defenseless.  The Old Testament mentions widows and orphans as deserving of special protection (Dt 27:19; Ps 68:5; 146:9), and they were the first concern of the New Covenant Church (Acts 6:1ff, in 9:39, and to St. Paul in 1 Timothy 5:3ff).  Bound in the divine blood of Christ, the Church is a family of believers and like any family we have the responsibility to love and care for each other.  We also are expected to extend that demonstration of love to those outside the faith community, because Jesus loved and suffered for them as well as for those of us who already belong to Him.  Our obligation is to love as He loves and that is love without boundaries.  This, James tells the faithful, is the exercise of true religion.

The Gospel of Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 ~ The Tradition of the Elders and the Parable of Clean and Unclean
Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals [artos/bread] with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.  3 For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders.  4 And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves.  And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.  5 So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, "Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal [artos] with unclean hands?"  6 He responded, "Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.'  8 You disregard God's commandments but cling to human tradition."  [...] 14 He summoned the crowd again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand.  15 Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile."  [...]  21 From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.  23 All these evils come from within and they defile.

The Temple hierarchy in Jerusalem sent their representatives to examine Jesus in the same way they sent men to question John the Baptist (Jn 1:19-20).  The "traditions of the elders" they refer to in verse 5 are the religious practices that have been added by the Pharisees and elders of the past century to the written Mosaic Law of the Torah and the Oral Tradition given to Moses and his brother Aaron, Israel's first high priest who had the final word on the right practice of religion.

2 they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals [artos/bread] with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.  3 For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders.  4 And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves.  And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.
As they expanded their authority over all religious matters in the first century BC, the Pharisees began to preach the doctrine that the ritual purity practices that applied to the priests should be applied to all the covenant people.  They added their own interpretation of religious customs to the Mosaic Law, making the Law more of a burden for the people and less of a tutor and a guide.  Certain traditions which included the ritual of Temple worship were part of a sacred Tradition that was only passed on orally by the chief priests and Levites until the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, when these traditions were recorded in the Jewish Mishnah in circa AD 200.  The Pharisees added to the oral Tradition their own rigid interpretation of the Law.

5 So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, "Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal [artos] with unclean hands?" 
The Pharisees are not charging Jesus and His disciples with poor hygiene but with a flagrant disregard for religious observances of the Law.  In Temple worship the chief priests washed their hands and feet before going about their duties.

6 He responded, "Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.'  8 You disregard God's commandments but cling to human tradition."
Jesus responds to their attack by calling them hypocrites (a Greek word that refers to one in Greek drama who plays a part) and quoting from Isaiah 29:13 LXX (Greek translation).  In that passage the prophet Isaiah chastised the people of Jerusalem for ignoring God's word delivered by His holy prophets and paying more attention to human precepts and to the letter rather than the spirit of the Law.  During His last day of teaching in Jerusalem before His arrest, Jesus will accuse the Pharisees of manipulation of the Law.  He will condemn them as hypocrites and will use strong language, calling them "serpents" and "a brood of vipers" in a covenant lawsuit composed of seven curse judgments (Mt 23:1-36). 

14 He summoned the crowd again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand.  15 Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile."
The Parable of Clean and Unclean in verses 14-15 is Jesus' 7th parable.  In the teaching of this parable, Jesus will do away with the ritual purity laws associated with clean and unclean foods (Lev chapter 11).  The foods designated "clean" and "unclean" were meant to separate the Israelites from their pagan neighbors and to remind the Israelites that were a pure and holy people dedicated to God.  This is the first of the ritual commandments of the Sinai Covenant that Jesus has changed.  Ritual defilement was defined as an external condition that signified an internal condition under the Sinai Covenant, but the New Covenant penetrates the heart to cleanse and govern the inward life of the believer.  It is the beginning of the end of the separation between Jew and Gentile.

21 From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. 
In the language of the Bible, the "heart" is the moral center of the person, and the source of every decision that manifests itself through the person's actions.  The point of Jesus' parable is that true defilement comes from the thoughts and actions of a person and not from what foods he consumes. Jesus gives a list of 13 actions/sins that defile a person in verses 21-22:

  1. Evil thoughts (the sin starts in the mind)
  2. Unchastity (lack of modesty in appearance and behavior)
  3. Theft
  4. Murder
  5. Adultery
  6. Greed
  7. Malice (intent to inflict harm on someone physically or emotionally)
  8. Deceit
  9. Licentiousness (not restrained by law or morality)
  10. Envy
  11. Blasphemy (abuse of the Divine Name of God)
  12. Arrogance (excessive pride and lack of respect for others)
  13. Folly (unwise conduct)

23 All these evils come from within and they defile. 
Jesus says that sin begins as a thought that is put into action.  Turn away from temptation, banish evil thoughts, and resist your imperfect human responses.  Replace them with the truth and righteousness of the Word and the actions of one who has been reborn into the family of a divine Father.  Then your actions will reflect your commitment to holiness and your life will be pleasing to God.

Catechism References:
James 1:17 (CCC 212, 2642); 1:27 (CCC 2208)
Mark 7:8 (CCC 581); 7:14-15 (CCC 574); 7:21 (CCC 1764)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2015