Today all of the scriptures we hear at mass affirm the same theme, that of the necessity of carefully observing God’s law. This is first seen in the opening reading from Deuteronomy, one of the five books of the Mosaic law. There Moses counsels the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe,” and later he adds, “Observe them carefully” (Deut 4:1, 6). Moses makes it evident that it is not simply hearing the word of the Lord that is important, but keeping it.
The Psalmist agrees with this focus on making one’s relationship with the Lord a living reality that affects our daily actions, rather than an abstract set of beliefs, saying, “One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord” (Ps 15:1). Doing justice is the point, not merely recognizing what is just and unjust. The history of Israel throughout the Old Testament era was marked by a constant struggle against the temptation to be aware of the law’s requirements, even well-versed in them, without actually practicing them.
Religious believers of every creed and epoch have long fought the same fight, striving to overcome the human tendency to profess beliefs at an abstract level without fulfilling them in daily life. Our second reading today, from the Epistle of James, illustrates how the earliest Christians found themselves dealing with this very problem that had troubled the people of Israel.
James warns the Christian community of Jerusalem, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” He then gives an explanation for his sharp words, noting, “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 1:22, 27). It seems that James had encountered members of the Christian community who had “heard” the Gospel proclaimed but who had shown no evidence that it had changed their way of life—it remained a dead letter instead of a source of new hope and growth in virtue.
Next, still on the theme of carefully fulfilling the word of God rather than simply hearing it, we turn to our Lord’s own teaching in the Gospel of Mark. Confronting a group of Pharisees who criticized his disciples for failing to follow their interpretation of the Mosaic law, Jesus rebukes them harshly, saying: “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 … You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition” (Mark 7:6-8).
Jesus’ point is not that the law was bad—it was of divine origin, after all—but rather that knowledge of the law, which the Pharisees certainly had, and superficial observation of the law, do not suffice to make one faithful to God’s covenant or a true disciple of Jesus. What is needed is to hear and receive the word, truly taking it to heart and letting it animate one’s every thought, word, and deed. This is to be a “doer of the word and not only a hearer.”
Jesus then extends his teaching on the law, adding: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mark 7:15). Here he is telling his disciples that interior conversion, not external strictness, is the key to fidelity to the covenant—both the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant Jesus ratified for our sake with his own blood. Moved by his example, may we become faithful keepers of God’s law and joyful ambassadors for Christ, he who is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.