What Jews call the Torah - the statutes and decrees Moses taught the people to observe [Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8] - was God’s gift to Israel, a sign of God’s special closeness to his people even in the regular routine of their daily lives. It challenged the people to become wise and intelligent enough to observe it, and so serve as a witness to the nations. In contrast to superficial “spiritualities,” that demand relatively little (and accordingly give little in return over the long-term), the conscientious observance of God’s Law was intended to transform every aspect of daily life into an experience of God’s presence – giving meaning and purpose and structure to the regular routines of daily life.
For this reason, for centuries before Jesus – and for centuries since, down to our own troubled time – faithful Jews have observed not only the 613 laws explicitly listed in the Torah, but a host of other observances designed to shore up the fundamentals of the Law. In times of persecution, this so-called “Fence around the Law” could call forth great heroism – as in the famous case of a Rabbi, imprisoned by the Romans, who used his limited supply of drinking water to observe the rules regarding hand-washing, even at the risk of dying of thirst.
So why this battle between Jesus and the Pharisees [Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23] ? And who were those Pharisees anyway?
The Pharisees were one of several factions in 1st-century Jewish life. Other major factions included the Sadducees (who were the Temple priests), the Zealots (who wanted to liberate Israel from Roman rule), the Essenes (who lived a quasi-monastic life in the desert), and, later in the century, those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead, the faction that came to be known as Christians.
Of all their contemporaries, the Pharisees aspired to live the most intense degree of religious observance, while combining that with life in society – unlike, for example, those who went off to live apart from society in the desert. The Pharisees time promoted a day-to-day spirituality. They sought to make the Law come alive in the daily life of every Jew, by relating its commandments to the various spheres of life – living an active, involved life but remaining (as Saint James says in today’s 2nd reading) unstained by the world [James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27].
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were revered for their religious zeal and dedication. Jesus and the Pharisees likely agreed more than they disagreed. Jesus also engaged in discussions with Pharisees and accepted dinner invitations to Pharisees’ homes. Nonetheless, the Gospel reports that Jesus also had some very harsh words for the Pharisees.
At Mount Sinai, according to the book of Exodus, God had instructed Moses to tell the Israelites: You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. In their desire to build a “Fence around the Law,” the Pharisees, who, Like Jesus himself, were all laymen, not Temple priests, had apparently adopted the more rigorous rules of ritual purification that applied primarily to the Temple priests - thus taking seriously the biblical image of all Israel as in some special sense a priestly people. The evangelist, trying to explain all this to his 1st-century Gentile Christian audience, emphasized that this tradition of the elders represented a human addition to God’s commandments. One of the likely reasons why this incident was recounted in the Gospel may have been because of the ongoing concern about how Gentile converts could best be assimilated into the originally all-Jewish Christian community. The account clearly portrays Jesus as a higher authority than the Pharisees when it comes to the interpretation and application of what God commands as opposed to merely human custom.
Identifying what is essential to living an authentic Christian moral life, sorting that out from the human and cultural envelope within which we inevitably receive it, is – always has been, and will always remain – a constant challenge for as long as the good news of Jesus brings new people from every nation, race, culture, and language into his Church.
On the other hand, creating and maintaining a cultural envelope within which one can live a moral life is essential. Ultimately, what we do does matter, lest we delude ourselves, as James warned us against in today’s 2nd reading. Neither Jesus nor his disciples would have lived as they lived or died as they did, if they had believed that anything goes. If anything, Jesus actually challenged his hearers to an even more demanding moral standard. Listen to the list of sins Jesus warned against: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. (Imagine if we all gave up folly!)
The Pharisees’ problem was that, while the Law was supposed to be a special sign of God’s closeness, here was God himself present in Jesus, but the experts in the law were completely missing the point.
Of course, this is not a temptation unique to 1st-century Pharisees. It is a universal temptation that can cause us to miss the point at any time and in any place. It is a temptation to which Pope Francis referred last October in his Address at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops. It is “a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit),” wanting to close oneself “within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve.”
In Jesus, God has become present to transform us into the priestly people which the Law was meant to signal, to turn us around, to turn our entire lives around, to authentic, life-long, day-in, day-out discipleship – or, as James more poetically expressed it, that we might be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 30, 2013.