Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

Stay with us, Lord, on our journey

Cycle B

Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

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 Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“You put aside the commandment of God”

Today's Gospel reading highlights different approaches to religious observance on the part of Jesus and the religious leaders of his time. The commandment of God, the Law, was at first seen as a great privilege that God had bestowed on his Chosen People. It showed them how to live out their covenant relationship with God. Gradually, however, a whole array of human regulations had come into force, requiring all manner of external and ritualistic observances. This led to a spirit of legalism which bore little relation to God or to God's will. Hence the condemnation of Jesus: “the worship they offer is worthless”.

This reading challenges us to distinguish between the Law of God, summed up by Jesus in the double law of love - of God and of neighbour, and any customs, practices or regulations that can threaten to replace it. The law of love, open-ended and without limit in what it demands, can appear rather overwhelming in its implications. It is far easier to replace it with a system of precise pious practices, black and white rules and regulations to be observed, hard and fast duties to be performed, external do's and don'ts to be obeyed. These might allow us to avoid the far more searching questions about the practical demands of love in our everyday lives.

The proper aim of religious practices is to draw us closer to God and to sustain us in our effort to live in his love. But they can become an end in themselves. In his rebuke of the Pharisees, Jesus does not condemn the religious practices in themselves but their abuse. He warns that they can too easily be reduced to empty observances and so become a matter of mere lip-service. In contrast he appeals for a heart bound in loving covenant relationship with the Father and bearing appropriate fruits of practical love such as those listed by St. James in today’s second reading – “coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it , and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world”.