IN THIS Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is criticised by the Pharisees and some of the scribes because his disciples are eating with unwashed hands. He responds by attacking these religious leaders for adding their own regulations to the “commandments of God” — something that is explicitly forbidden in Deuteronomy 4.2. Jesus quotes Isaiah as he diagnoses the wayward state of their hearts.
As Ched Myers says, Jesus’s list of sins — the “things that come out” — has a “political dimension”. It includes the “key crimes of power” which Mark’s Gospel imputes to the antagonists of Jesus: “murder” (the crime of Barabbas in 15.7), “stealth and deceit” (the sins of the scribes and high priests in 14.1), and “blasphemy” (Jesus’ charge against the scribes at 3.28).
Jesus insists that it is “from within, from the human heart” that “evil intentions” emerge to generate these sinful actions (Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus).
Our reading from Deuteronomy reminds us of the rationale for God’s commandments. The Lord tells his people: “You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’” He poses a rhetorical question: “What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?”
The purpose of these commandments is to make Israel a distinctive embodiment of God’s justice, and thereby a witness to the surrounding nations. This explains the combination of injunctions on hospitality (offering refuge to the alien and stranger) and holiness (remaining distinct from the surrounding idolatrous cultures).
As Walter Brueggemann explains, the Lord’s address “aims at evoking a distinct community that understands its life as a ‘contrast society’ that is to order its public practice differently, quite unlike the nations around it. . . The text has a primary ‘ecclesial’ accent aimed at summoning the community to a different sense of itself in the world” (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy).
The radical hospitality of the people of God is not only compatible with their distinctiveness from the surrounding culture: it positively requires it. They must remain distinctive to avoid capitulation to the prevailing values and powers of their age.
Jesus is likewise forming his disciples as a radically hospitable community, in which the ritually unclean and Gentiles are included. Precisely because of this, his community will remain a distinctive “contrast society” to the culture around it.
Radical hospitality does not mean a laissez-faire attitude to spiritual discipline and holiness: Jesus’s teaching sometimes intensifies that of the Pharisees (e.g. Mark 10.2-9), and he instructs the disciples both to fast (Matthew 6.16-18) and (as we read last week) to be nourished and shaped by the eucharist.
The authentic movement of the Spirit always disturbs corrupt hierarchies of wealth and power, and always brings justice to the poorest. Whenever this is forgotten, in the history of both Israel and the Church, the life-giving commandments of scripture become distorted — whether by being added to (in a way that imposes burdens that God does not intend, usually on the least powerful) or diluted (in a way that detaches them from the transformation of both the heart and the wider world).
The transformation of both heart and world is the focus of the Epistle of James, which we begin to read through this Sunday. As Kelly Anderson observes, this Sunday’s passage both calls us to practical obedience — as “doers of the word, not merely hearers” — and reminds us that such obedience can come only from a renewal of the heart.
Only when our hearts have been transformed will God’s commandments be experienced as a “law of liberty”; and only when we listen to God’s word with our hearts as well as our ears will that law bear fruit in faithful action (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: James, First, Second and Third John).
Anderson quotes a homily of Benedict XVI to illuminate this teaching: “The Law of God, at the centre of life, demands that the heart listen. It is a listening that does not consist of servile, but rather of filial, trusting, and aware obedience. Listening to the word is a personal encounter with the Lord of life, an encounter that must be expressed in concrete decisions and become a journey.”