The Spirit of the Law

The Spirit of the Law

Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year. Fr Robert Pollock tells us of the new understanding of the Law that comes to us in Christ.

The Gospel narratives often present Christ in controversy with Jewish religious leaders: the Gospel, the good news, was not always welcome, or accepted. These challenges to Our Lord’s teaching and preaching are important, as they can lead to a fresh way of understanding an old teaching, or introduce a new teaching.

The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, tell the story of God’s people, their origin, their deliverance from Egypt, and their time in the desert. They should have died in the desert; it should have been a tomb, a place of death; they lived, because God gave them food and water; the desert became a womb, from which they were born.

Their time in the desert was a formative period in their development, when they learned what was meant by being the people of God. Moses received the Law from God, which taught them what to believe and how to live. The Law laid down rules of behaviour; the part of the Law which we are most familiar is the Ten Commandments, but it contains much more, laying down in great detail how God’s people should behave, how they were different from other peoples.

Their beliefs and behaviour made them unique, not a people, but a special people, the people of God, with a unique destiny.

This uniqueness and destiny depend upon the observance of the Law and the traditions of the elders, whose importance is shown in today’s first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy.

In the Gospel passage, the occasion for the dispute between the Christ and the Pharisees was that our Lord’s disciples did not wash before eating; as the passage develops it becomes clear that something deeper and more important than simple ritual washing is at issue. Our Lord’s reply to this charge is to widen the scope of the argument. He did not deny the importance of washing before eating, but indicated an area of greater concern. He invokes Isaiah:

This people honours me only with lip-service,
while their hearts are far from me.

The worship they offer me is worthless,
the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.

The prophet was making the serious charge that the spirit of the Law had been lost, the letter only was being observed, and God was not being worshipped. External actions must be a true reflection of something interior; when this equivalence is lost, mere external observance has become divorced from the law and has no meaning. Christ is making the same charge. The external observances have taken precedence over the Law itself. Cleanliness is important and necessary, but it must be understood as it was intended when the Law was revealed by God to Moses.

Christ then compares the difference between outward observance and inward disposition, and one can sense the intensity of his discourse, and his anger. What is outside and can go into a man is less harmful than what is within. Many evils lurk within the heart of man, anger, envy, malice, which are far more dangerous and destructive than what may come from without, and they cannot be combated with a mere external observance. They have to be recognised for what they are.

In order to understand the Law and its injunctions, we must understand ourselves. With a pure heart we can understand the law of God, behave correctly and offer true worship.

Christ stated explicitly that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to offer a new understanding. When he was accused of healing on the Sabbath, he did not abolish the Sabbath, but offered a new understanding: the Sabbath was made for man. In today’s Gospel reading, he is not abolishing the externals of ritual cleanliness, but pointing to a fuller context for understanding them, and thus understanding ourselves, and our place in the Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8 | James 1:17-18,21-22,27 | Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

fr. Robert Pollock was Superior of the Dominican community in Glasgow, and now lives in sheltered accommodation.