Blog & Pastor Letters

The Law of God and Human Traditions

08-29-2021Weekly ReflectionRev. Wilfred Yinah

The 1st reading, (vv. 1-2), insists on the absolute value, the inviolability of the law that cannot be changed because it is not the work of men, but of God. Two temptations must be avoided: that of reducing it, rejecting provisions that are more challenging and difficult, and the opposite of adding new requirements dictated by the “wisdom” of men. This second temptation is particularly insidious because it considers the “will of God” those which are only rules of men. In the face of undue addition to the law of the Lord, Jesus invites his disciples to assume a free and serene attitude.

Shake off—he recommends—this unbearable burden, without remorse, without worrying about criticisms and, sometimes, even the threats of those who, unjustly, are responsible in the name of the Lord (Mt 11:28-30). In the second part of the passage (vv. 6-8), the justified pride of the pious Israelite for the Torah appears. The God-given law is loved because it is genuine, not altered by the rigid interpretations and stringent formulation as a result and by arbitrary additions. The word of God is a tree of life to those who make it their own and those who uphold it are filled with joy.”

The second reading again echo’s the theme of “God’s word”. In the first part (vv. 17-18), in response to one who claims that evil comes from God, James affirms that only good comes from the Lord because he is light and in him, there is no darkness. The “word of truth,” the salvation that has been realized in Christ is a gift that comes from him, the Father of light.

To gain salvation, listening to this Word is not sufficient. To produce abundant fruit, it must be accepted with docility (v. 21), Even the docile and attentive listening is not enough. One must make one final step, the decisive one: to put the Word into practice.

Finally, to those who confuse “religion of the heart” with formalisms and the meticulous execution of rituals, James provides the criterion for determining whether one is practicing the true religion. The real one lies in “helping the orphans and widows in their need and keeping oneself from the world’s corruption” (v. 27). In the Bible, widows and orphans represent anyone in need. Listening to the Word of God leads to assimilate the feelings and the kindness of the Lord for the weakest.

To practice this religion it is necessary—James continues—to keep oneself “pure,” that is, “detached from the things of this world.”

In today’s gospel passage, a question that touches on a central element of the Jewish religion is raised: “the purifications.” the first part of the passage (vv. 1-8), contains a heated dispute between Jesus and some Pharisees and scribes who came from Jerusalem. The fault that they reproach him of is that his followers do not respect the distinction between the sacred and the profane: “They were eating their meal with unclean hands” The first, very serious, is to attribute to God the distinction between pure and impure people, between the righteous and sinners. This discrimination, and the relative norms to avoid prohibited contacts, lead to isolationism, trigger intolerances and put into action perverse dynamics of aggression. These are not willed by God, for whom all people are pure (Acts 10), and there are no differences of race, gender and social status (Gal 3:28). Even the separation of clean and unclean creatures, between sacred and profane is not desired by the Lord, but by people. Jesus puts himself in the spiritual line of the prophets and pious masters of his time. He focuses on the renewal of life and takes a strict position against the religion reduced to mere compliance to a legal code. He says that God is not interested in external purity, formalisms, and solemn liturgies of the temple appearances. Like the prophets (Am 5:21-27; Is 1:11-20; 58:1-14), he unreservedly condemns this “religious farce” and, quoting Isaiah, says: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless for what they teach are only human rules” (vv. 6-7).

Those who deify these traditions are described as hypocrites, that is, actors, comedians who cover their faces with the mask of piety, devotion, obedience, who pretend to be pious, but, instead neglect the single worship pleasing to God, love for the brothers and sisters. They honor the Lord in word only, and with their lips, not with their hearts (Dt 6:5).

The religion of the heart can be practiced only by those who have reached a mature and adult faith, those who are free, sincere, and open to the light of God and to the Spirit. Jesus establishes the criteria by which to distinguish between pure and impure actions. Those that defile man do not come from outside but from within, from the heart.