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13th Sunday after Trinity

19 August 2021

Proper 17: Deuteronomy 4.1-2,6-9; Psalm 15; James 1.17-end; Mark 7.1-8,14,15, 21-23

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WHENEVER I come to the letter of James, I think of Martin Luther. I remember how Luther disliked this letter because of its emphasis (as he saw it) on justification (or “being made righteous”) by works. Paul’s letter to the Romans? Rock solid. James’s “catholic epistle”? Iffy.

This has left me, paradoxically, always glad to find how interesting James’s text can be. Perhaps this is because if I found myself in trouble, I would rather be met with the practical help of James than the noble theology of Romans. In this lection we have a piece of intricate theology, expressed in verses 17-18. It ties the writer’s practical charity to an exalted encapsulation of God’s being. That deserves our serious attention.

Alongside it, we have to set the message of the other readings. If they have a common theme, it is living out life in God by doing what is right and good. We are given a variety of pointers to what that might mean. The simplest is in the psalm. It is not a favourite of mine, for the simple reason that it seems to equate divine favour with good behaviour. If this were the whole of Christian truth rather than a tiny crumb of it, we would all be in trouble. One line redeems it, though: the praise of those who keep their word, “even to their hurt”. It matters that goodness costs us something, instead of being either a mere habit, or a passive omission of wrongdoing.

When we turn to Deuteronomy, the theology is again troublesome. We have to encounter sensitivities over land ownership which cast a long shadow down the millennia. But — as always with scripture — something comes to our rescue: in this case, v.6 is invaluable. What is the point of keeping the Lord’s statutes and ordinances? In addition to the effect that it is to have on families and individuals, it must have an effect that is international: keeping God’s law is to evoke the response, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!”

What a difference it might make if we were to set this aim at the heart of our national life, either in the UK, or in the individual nations of which it consists. We would not then go bragging about our world-beating institutions, our sporting successes, and our commercial influences. Our ambition would reach no higher than to seek, at a national level, what Solomon asked of God at the individual level: to be wise and discerning. This would not be a matter of boastfully claiming greatness, then, but one of making that greatness evident to all through excellence, through wisdom, and, above all, through sheer unfashionable goodness.

The Gospel has been filleted for us like a shrink-wrapped supermarket fish. The careful sequence of argument picked out by the lectioneers is not really there; its teaching is broken up by asides and reflections. It would be a mistake to conclude, from this Gospel about what defiles a person, that Jesus was uninterested in what we do with our bodies.

In one of the discarded verses, he expresses his frustration with a particular way of being religious which he sees as mistaken, perhaps even dangerous: “he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!’” (Mark 7.9). Thus he draws attention to a behaviour, or attitude, which is extremely common in the life of faith, but which — like the offence of “stalking” — we can’t really understand until we have a label for it. The label we need here is “scruples”. In some of its modern manifestations we may know it as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In The Simpsons, Ned Flanders badgering Reverend Lovejoy with nit-picking moral questions is a good example of scruples. They can afflict anyone who is eager for boundaries and limits to behaviour, or wanting to apply the principles of faith to every aspect of their lives. Attention to detail is good, but scruples are an empty tomb: we will never find God there. Gospel goodness is not about obsessive behaviour. It is about remembering James’s words, that every act of giving of ours comes through us from the Father of lights. Since we are not the givers of our own gifts, striving for control or completeness is the deadest of dead ends.

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