Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

God's Law and Human Law:
Internal and External Consistency

1st reading: Dt 4:1-2, 6-8 Observing and practising God's commandments show human wisdom and knowledge
2nd reading: Jas 1:17-18,21-22,27 We must put God's word into practice
Gospel: Mk7:1-8,14-15,21-23 Contrasting God's commandments and human tradition

Chinese classics:
-“What Heaven has conferred is called Nature.”(1)
-“The parrot can speak but it is still a bird; the ape can speak but it is still a beast.”(2)
-“When solid qualities are in excess of achievements, we have rusticity; when accomplishments are in excess of solid qualities, we have the manners of a historian of the royal court; when accomplishments and solid qualities are well-balanced, we then have a person of virtue.”(3)

“The Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly 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 human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mk 7: 5-8)

In this passage we see clearly that God's commandments are incompatible with human tradition. When God promulgated the commandments, He stressed their spirit. When later human beings obeyed the commandments, they sometimes put the emphasis on the letter of the law.

In the Bible there are many commandments and rules, all of which are meant for the long-term good of the people. Hence when the law is kept the initial spirit is treasured and observed. In the Book of Deuteronomy obeying the law and regulations was the criterion for the Chosen People's existence and entrance into the Promised Land. So only by keeping God’s law can we show forth our “wisdom and discernment.” (Deut 4:6)

The Bible links obeying the law with wisdom because all the laws in Scripture relate to human life. To disobey those laws harms us human beings, not God. God does not punish us, we punish ourselves.

Rules for life are meant for the good of those who obey them, not for the glory of the law maker. The pull of gravity causes the free fall of matter. The law of life requires that light, air and water be available for plant growth. To culture fish, breed dogs, raise pigs and cattle, one must follow the respective laws for healthy growth. If one goes against the laws of Nature there will be no healthy development.

We see from this that to become fully human has its laws also. A harmonious family has its own rules for family harmony; so too for social development, world peace – all have their own infallible, unmovable laws. These laws were decreed by the Creator when God created the universe, and those who obey them will live and develop happily and healthily. Those who do not will wither and die. This is built into life which has its own rules. That is what The Doctrine of the Mean meant by “What Heaven has conferred is called Nature.” (1) This life-giving Nature comes from heaven.

Therefore in Deuteronomy God said, “Give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live.” (Deut 4:1) We keep the commandments for our own good, not for the good of God. James goes even further. He regards all that God asks of us as “the implanted word.” (see Jas 1:21). That Word can save our souls. What God asks of us are not just abstract ideas. God wants us to carry out the Word, the commandments, the law, in our daily lives, and love others with concrete actions. Hence James has a well-known verse, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” (Jas 1:27)

To love others, especially to love those for whom no one else cares, is ‘religion pure and undefiled’; it is to practise what the Word demands of us.

Washing hands before eating was perhaps just a hygienic need. Later it evolved into a ritual requirement which signified internal purity of heart to remind us that we should live pure lives. It is similar to the rite of washing of hands the priest does at the Offertory of the Mass. Once we raise this simple rite to the level of wondering if a person is truly pure, the rule becomes something that binds us, even may encourage hypocrisy, thinking that washing one’s hands is equal to a pure life.

What Jesus asks of us is true purity: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile but the things that come out are what defiles.”(Mk 7: 14-15) He goes further to say that it is only from within our hearts come evil intentions, avarice, etc. that make a person unclean; neglecting to wash one's hands before a meal is a matter of hygiene, not a moral or religious issue. Here we may ponder on the relationship between our external actions and internal intentions. This will help us nurture inner virtue through the external rituals.

The Book of Ritual says: “The parrot can speak but it is still a bird; the ape can speak but it is still a beast.” (2) External behaviour cannot substitute for internal integrity. Sometimes people can be so venomous they act like beasts in human disguise. In comparison the harm they can do us far surpasses what a real beast can do! This definitely does not mean that external deportment is unimportant. What we need to do is assure that our external actions are in accord with our inner selves.

Confucius said, “When solid qualities are in excess of achievements, we have rusticity; when accomplishments are in excess of solid qualities, we have the manners of a historian of the royal court. When accomplishments and solid qualities are well-balanced, we then have the person of virtue.” (Confucian Analects, Book VI Yung Yey, Chap 16)(3) This means that if people only have kind hearts and good qualities but lack education and culture, their behaviour may be somewhat coarse or vulgar. But if education makes the person appear far better than what is inside, then it is like those ‘court historians’ throughout history who are inclined to use euphemistic language to hide the faults of the emperor. Only a person whose inner qualities and outward behaviour have developed equally can be called a person of virtue.

We who follow Christ must nurture the same kind of attitude and spirit, striving to keep God's commandments and at the same time carrying out our religious rituals according to their intended meaning.