The biblical Book of Deuteronomy revolves around a single dramatic picture: Moses standing up before the whole people of Israel solemnly assembled before him to present to them the Law of God. They are in the desert, having escaped from slavery in Egypt, and their long journey to the Promised Land is finally coming to an end. Their future is opening up to a glorious new life of freedom and prosperity.
But it is a dangerous time, too. Opportunities can be transformed into temptations. Gratitude can degenerate into self-indulgence. And a guaranteed victory can lead to over-confidence and a betrayal of the Covenant. God knows they do not need a stricter law—that’s a mistranslation of the Hebrew word. They need what the Bible calls TORAH, better translated as teaching. They need instruction on how to live in the new land, what values to embrace, how to ward off the pitfalls and contradictions that can lead them astray. They need the wisdom that only God can provide and that Moses as the great prophet of Israel will impart.
The gospels tend to associate Jesus with the Old Testament figure of Moses. For us, Jesus, too, is a lawgiver, but in a special way, like Moses. To impart God’s law, Jesus had first to correct the misguided notion of law that was so prevalent in his day and such an obstacle to his ministry.
Today’s gospel recounts a typical legal dispute in Jesus’ ministry. Understand that the argument is not about hygiene or modern sanitary practices. It’s all about religious ritual observances—as Mark explains to his Gentile readers. An obvious question emerges from the incident: Why doesn’t Jesus simply conform to the requirement instead of making such a fuss?
Regarding the second reading, beginning today and for the next four weeks or so the second reading will be taken from the Letter of James. This New Testament book focuses on one main idea, introduced in the passage selected for today. There’s a popular saying that captures this meaning: “Walk the walk.” Or as James put it two thousand years ago: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” The Letter of James applies that lesson specifically to social justice: Help the poor. Don’t just talk about it. It’s a challenging message that we will hear today and during the coming Sundays.
—Walter Modrys SJ
This week’s readings can be found on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.