ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

The Law of Life

JAMES 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Law is essentially a good to be valued. Laws, honestly established, properly understood, carefully observed and equitably upheld function as a safeguard which protect each member of the human community. Laws provide that necessary structure which fosters the growth and development of individuals within their respective societies.

Our Hebrew brothers and sisters in the faith refer to the law which gives guidance and direction to their lives as Torah. A more comprehensive term than law, Torah means instruction or teaching and is regarded as revelation from God. Torah prescribes a way of life lived in accord with the daily call of God. To study Torah is to know God; to know God is to have life. Among the many parables and homilies of the rabbis, there is one prayer which expresses these beliefs most beautifully: “Blessed is God who has created us for glory and has given us Torah and thus has planted everlasting life in our midst.”

The faith which so valued the Torah and gave voice to this prayer is also expressed in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy. Faithfulness to Torah was understood as the pathway to life and a means of closeness to God.

Unfortunately, those who interpret and reinforce laws sometimes stray far from the simple truths they are meant to reveal and protect. A rabbi working at Hebrew University in Jerusalem offers this example: One afternoon a student approached a professor asking that he put his signature on a letter of recommendation. “But it is the Sabbath,” said the teacher, “I cannot sign my name because the Talmud (interpretation of Torah, including legal precedents, guiding principles and personal insights, spanning a period of nearly one thousand years) asserts that writing two words in succession is work and to do so on the Sabbath is to break the Law.” Disappointed, the student objected, citing the fact that the professor often gathered students into his study on the Sabbath. As they discussed one subject after another, the professor would climb a stepladder to retrieve a heavy book from his shelves, bring it down, open it, read a relevant passage and then climb up the ladder to repeat the process with another book, and another and another.

When asked about this apparent contradiction, the professor explained that the Talmud says nothing about climbing a stepladder to take books from shelves even if this vigorous effort causes one to perspire. Ironically such actions do not constitute a legal infraction, but to write two words in succession is a breach of the law!!

Needless to say, this preoccupation with the letter of the law rather than with the spirit and principles which give it life is not restricted to any one religious denomination or another. The tendency to stress the picayune, to find shelter in loopholes and to substitute legal observance for an authentically lived response to God is all-pervasive. Jesus, in today’s gospel, addresses this tendency with a clarity that compels our attention.

As William Barclay (“Mark”, The Daily Study Bible, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1975) has noted, the term Torah originally referred to the Ten Words or Commandments of God and the literary fabric which supported these Words, viz., the Pentateuch or first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. While it is true that the Torah contains a number of detailed instructions in matters of moral questions, what is laid down is a series of great moral principles which believers were to interpret and apply for themselves. This practice served the community for several hundred years. But in the post-exilic period (fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E.) there was a heightened emphasis on the law as the source of the community’s strength, unity and survival. Consequently there came into being the class of legal experts or scribes (e.g. Ezra) who dedicated themselves to amplifying, expanding, exploring and defining great moral principles into rules that would apply to every and any conceivable situation. As a result, the Torah was expanded to include an Oral law (or Halakah), comprised of 613 precepts, each of which was further expanded and applied until the resulting body of legal prescriptions numbered in the thousands. Burdened by the sheer immensity of the law, it was easy to lose sight of the essentials. Jesus, through his words and works, called for a return to simplicity, authenticity and balance. His invitation is renewed in our midst today.


In one of his speeches, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) defined the law as “the witness and external deposit of our moral life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race.” In addition to being the gauge and history of the moral development of his people, the Deuteronomic theologian regarded the Torah as a gift from God that set Israel apart from the other nations. Whereas the law codes of other nations functioned as necessary safeguards of individual rights and as a means to redress wrong, Israel understood the Torah as a communication from God which imparted favor and blessings. A source of wisdom and strength, the Torah was thought to bestow life and an identity to those who heeded its words. As is indicated in today’s first reading, the statutes and decrees of the law were regarded as the terms or stipulations of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God. To keep Torah was to keep close company with the Creator of the universe.

Adherence to the law was closely related to the gift of the land, the possession of which transformed the loosely knit tribal amphictyony into a nation with considerable political and economic clout. Due to its fundamental legal focus, Israel interpreted its political successes as well as its pitfalls and failures as functionally and proportionately related to the faithful observance (or not) of the Torah. Raised from the level of mere obedience to civil ordinances, to the level of religious and ethical response, to live the Torah was equivalent to believing and trusting in God.

In order to encourage his contemporaries to remain faithful to the law, the author of Deuteronomy cited several possible motivating factors, viz., (1) fullness of life, “that you may live” (v. 1); (2) the land, “take possession of the land” (v. 1); (3) the gift of wisdom, “this will give evidence of your wisdom” (v. 6); (4) nearness to God (v. 7). Faithful observance of the law was considered a means of intimate union with God, who would remain so close as to be able to hear every prayer of the people.

Notice the reference to the gods of other nations in verse seven. The insinuation that other peoples were attended by, and prayed to gods other than Yahweh, underscores the antiquity of this particular pericope. Although the book of Deuteronomy probably received its final form in the seventh century B.C.E., its compilers and redactors structured their work so as to include some very early material. Hence the reference to other gods is representative of a period which predated the age of the classical prophets who helped Israel to enunciate its faith in the one and only God.

Notice also, the command that nothing should be added to or subtracted from the law in verse two. Such prohibitions were common and can be found in other legal documents of the ancient world, e.g. the Law Code of Hammurabi. Because Israel valued the law as the revelation of God’s will, it was inconceivable that any human person could improve upon God’s gift. Reginald Fuller (Reading the New Lectionary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1976) has correctly pointed out that this reading was chosen to underline the distinction between the commandments of God and the traditions of humankind, which is the main point of today’s Marcan gospel. Suffice it to say, the Deuteronomic theologian has prepared the way for Jesus who will lead us out of the dark and tangled web of casuistry into the bold and simple light of the truth.

JAMES 1:17-18, 21-22, 27

Today, and for the next four weeks, our mentor during the second reading will be James. Of the five men named James in the Christian Scriptures, James, the brother of Jesus has been traditionally credited with the document that bears his name. However, there are several factors which seem to indicate that the author, who identifies himself only as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1), is someone else. First, the letter is written in excellent Greek, which was not James’ language. Second, there are no personal references and no allusion whatever to the Jewish vs. gentile Christian conflict in which James had been so embroiled in the first decades after Jesus’ resurrection. Because of its concern with post-Pauline antinomian developments and due to the fact that James died in 62 C.E., the letter attributed to him was probably written by a Hellenistic Jewish Christian in the late first or early second century C.E. Listed by Eusebius among the antilegomena or disputed books, James was accepted into the Christian canon only in the fourth century C.E.

Practical and paranetic in tone and substance, James reads more like a treatise or sermon than a letter; as such it was aimed at averting an abstract and therefore inauthentic expression of Christian faith. As the author states in today’s second reading, those who have been privileged to hear God’s word are to let its power take root and then live and act by virtue of that power (vv. 21-22). To do otherwise, i.e., to only listen to God’s word and not act upon it, is to deceive oneself.

As James explained in verses 23-24 (omitted from today’s pericope), the person who is a hearer but not a doer of the word is like someone who looks into a mirror and then goes off and promptly forgets the face he/she has seen. As William Barclay (“James”, The Daily Study Bible, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1976) has explained, such is the person who sees the smuts which disfigure his face, the disheveled hair and then omits doing anything about it. While listening to the word of God a person is challenged to see who he/she is and who he/she ought to be. To see what is wrong and to do nothing to become better is to hear the word and not cooperate with its transforming power. With dual emphasis on hearing and doing, the ever-practical James reminds us that what is heard in the holy place must be lived in every other place.

Jewish readers of this document would probably have identified the word of God as the Torah. However, those who had accepted Christ as the promised messiah would have understood that the term has a more encompassing significance. In a Christian context, the word of God includes not only the law and the prophets but also the word of revelation which is Jesus Christ. Therefore, in humbly welcoming the word, we welcome the person and mission of Jesus. Through Jesus, the incarnate word, the saving power of God is at work in us. Through Jesus, we are able to look into the mirror with a clarity of vision that will enable us to recognize who we are and to do what is necessary to become all that God intends.

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

Although the Halakah or Oral law (see introduction for August 31, 1997) was described by our Jewish forebears in the faith as a fence or wall around the Torah, designed to preserve and protect, it had become a virtual barrier and a burden which obscured God’s gift of the law and weighed heavily upon the hearts of the people. By the time of Jesus’ ministry the Oral Law had become so detailed and cumbersome that ordinary people could not comprehend its complexities; their only recourse was to consult the scribes, experts in the law, who were able to guide others through the legal labyrinth.

At issue in today’s Marcan gospel is the principle of clean and unclean, which, as Wilfrid Harrington (Mark, Michael Glazier, Inc., Wilmington: 1984) has noted, was at the very root of Jewish preoccupation with ritual purification. As regards this principle, the Oral Law had developed definite and rigid rules, not in the interest of hygienic cleanliness but for the sake of ritual or ceremonial purity.

For example, hands were to be washed before every meal and between courses in a specific manner. First, the hands were brushed clean of any sand or soil. The water for washing was reserved in special stone jars so that it also was ceremonially pure. With fingertips pointing upward, water was poured over the hands until it ran down to the wrists. Even the amount of water was specified, viz., a quantity equal to one and one half egg shells full. With hands still wet, one hand washed the other but since this action made the water unclean, more water was poured on the hands with fingertips pointing downward. To fail in any part of this ritual was to be unclean in the sight of God. It was for this reason that the Pharisees and Scribes cited the disciples of Jesus for not washing their hands before eating (v. 5).

At this point it should be noted that the Oral Law required such hand washing only of priests in Jesus’ day. Therefore the accusation against the disciples may be a reflection of the experience of the Marcan church in the 60s C.E. Because contact with gentiles (who were deemed unclean) was inevitable, especially outside Israel, the rules for ritual ablution were extended to lay people. Mark’s detailed description of the Jewish ritual (vv.3-4) is one of many such indicators in his gospel of the non-Jewish character of his community. No doubt, one of the issues with which the Marcan church had to contend was whether or not gentiles should conform to Jewish traditions in order to become Christians. Recall the important role played by Paul in resolving this burning question.

Jesus, for his part, cut through the “legalese” of his critics and spoke to the very heart of the matter. Purity or holiness would no longer be a matter of soap and water but of a lived faith which responds to God’s word and cooperates with God’s forgiving, cleansing grace. Quoting the prophet Isaiah (29:13), Jesus called his contemporaries (and us) to move beyond that hypocrisy which pays lip service but hides a sinful, devious heart behind impeccably washed hands. He rejected the Oral Law inasmuch as it had succeeded in overshadowing God’s commands.

Wilfrid Harrington (op.cit.) suggests that Jesus’ argument is remarkably similar to that of Hebrews 9-10. Like the epistolary author, Jesus showed that legal discrimination between clean and unclean is incapable of effecting moral purity. Jesus annulled the concept of cultic cleansing because he was bringing into being another and far more efficacious means of attaining holiness.

Notice the words with which Jesus prefaced his new teaching, “Hear me”; this Shema, or call to listen and attend, is reminiscent of the manner in which people were called to hear and obey the law of God in the Hebrew Scriptures (see first reading, Deuteronomy 4:1 and 5:1, 6:3-9, etc.). As this gospel is read in our midst today, Jesus’ challenge to hear and listen, and thus to become pure and holy is renewed.

[NOTE TO USERS: This archive is available for use without charge, but it remains the property of the author and under copyright with Celebrations Publications. Users are permitted to print individual Sunday commentaries for pastoral use, but are prohibited from downloading or copying files or printing any portion of this for sale or distribution.]

e-mail the Celebration editor at patmarrin@aol.com

Copyright © 2000 Celebration Publications

Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
Celebration Publications
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111