This Sunday the scripture readings reflect upon law, both that of Moses and that of Christ, and upon the way in which we are called to abide by the law. To put it better, we should substitute the term “instruction” for “law,” since the root of the word Torah, the Hebrew term for the law of Moses, is best translated as “instruction” or “teaching.” Christ’s words to his disciples also fall more along the lines of instruction than they do law, because while they have the force of a moral obligation, they are directed toward the ultimate goal of our following his example freely and joyfully.
We begin our exploration of the Lord’s instruction in the Book of Deuteronomy, which is the last book of the Torah and a summary of the teaching that God delivered to the Israelites and the adventures they experienced during the forty years of their desert wandering. Moses relates the Lord’s instruction: “Hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe…you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. Observe them carefully” (Deut 4:1-2, 6). We see that God requires that his people observe what they have heard, yet as later events show they often did not keep the Lord’s teaching.
Further, God orders the people not to add to his teaching nor subtract from it, but to keep it exactly as Moses has spoken it. This would maintain the beautiful simplicity and focus of God’s teaching, and prevent it from being overlaid with distractions and minutiae. The Psalmist summarizes the powerful simplicity and dignity of the Torah’s commands when he says: “The one who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord” (Ps 15:1).
Next our scriptures move on to the Epistle of James; by the way, we will hear from James at each Sunday mass in the month of September. James, who was the head of the Church in Jerusalem in its earliest days, urges us: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves” (James 1:22). This advice from James is not surprising since he himself was of Jewish origins and was a devoted leader of Jewish-Christians who made up a large part of the Church at its beginning. These Jewish-Christians were naturally familiar with the instruction of the Torah and James wants them to follow the “law of Christ” just as carefully as they honored the law of Moses. James explains: “the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25). Here James is pointing to the teaching of Christ as “the perfect law of freedom,” which brings to fulfillment the law of Moses and extends the guidance—and freedom—of God’s edifying teaching to all nations.
In the gospel, our Lord reiterates that excessive focus on the external details of the law can cause us to lose our proper focus on the whole purpose of his divine instruction. By dint of our fallen human nature we tend to seize upon minor points of observance which are easy to follow, but which distract us from the serious evils that lurk in our hearts. To this end our Lord says: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mark 7:15).
Instructed by our Lord today, let us abide freely in the “law of Christ,” not deluding ourselves or judging others, but rather living as those who both hear the word of God and keep it.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.