“Lord, who shall dwell on your holy mountain? He who walks without fault; he who acts with justice and speaks the truth from his heart.” The responsorial psalm sets before us ancient Israel’s understanding of God’s Law. While many surrounding nations experienced law as an imposition and restriction, the law of God was, for the tribes of Israel, a communion with God himself.
As Moses gave his last instructions to the people, preparing them for the Promised Land, he insisted that their lives be lived in obedience to the will of God. “Take notice of the laws and customs that I teach to you today, and observe them, that you may have life and may enter and take possession of the land the Lord the God of your fathers is giving to you.”
God’s love for his people had been expressed both in the deliverance of an enslaved people and in the law whose observance would enshrine the relationship between God and his people. Far from being an imposition, the Law was life itself, a sharing in the beauty and holiness of God.
Moses predicted that fidelity to this law would win the respect of the surrounding nations. “No other people is as wise and prudent as this great nation. And indeed, what great nation is there that has its gods as near as the Lord our God is whenever we call on him.”
The words of Moses are particularly relevant at a time when society clamours for compromise on every side. Ultimately it is not our compromises but our lived fidelity to the will of God that benefits the society in which we live. We betray both ourselves and our society when we depart from the will of God.
The disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees revolved around the proper observance of the law. The Scribes and Pharisees manipulated the ritual prescriptions of the law to control the lives of the people. Today’s Gospel is but one example. The Pharisees attacked Jesus because his disciples were eating without the ritual washing that was proscribed as a preparation for food. Jesus, quoting the Prophet Isaiah, did not dismiss ritual as such, but insisted that all ritual should serve a higher purpose. “This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.”
Jesus went on to explain that what makes us holy, what makes us clean or unclean, is what possesses and comes from our hearts. “It is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge.”
The Letter of Saint James gave this teaching practical application. James first spoke of the Word of God that has been planted and sown in our hearts. For him this Word was the source of everything that is good and perfect. For James, it was not enough simply to accept and acknowledge the Word of God. “You must do what the Word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves.”
At a time of famine and great persecution, James did not hesitate to insist that conduct should match conviction. “Pure unspoilt religion, in the eyes of our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.”
It is in prayer that each must discern the pure, unspoilt religion that the Father seeks from our generation.