Mark 7:1-13 – Letter and Spirit


We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…


MARK 7:1-13

LETTER AND SPIRIT

Let’s begin this lectio divina by considering a few sayings of the Desert Fathers, all taken from the tradition associated with Abba Poemen the Shepherd:

Abba Poemen said, “Teach your mouth to say what is in your heart.”

And closely related to it (it may even be just a variant from another tradition):

Abba Poemen also said, “Teach your heart to guard that which your tongue teaches”.

In answer to a brother who has been asked to be in charge of a group of monks, Abba Poemen says, “Be their example, not their legislator”.

And lastly,

A brother asked Abba Poemen, “What is a hypocrite?”  The old man said to him, “A hypocrite is he who teaches his neighbour something he makes no effort to do himself”.

The sayings of Jesus which we are considering in this Markan text place before us one of the most demanding aspects of any way of life, but particularly of the Gospel – the measure of authenticity in our lives, when what we do and what we say are married, not just vaguely or even closely, but completely.  It was an aspect of belief and practice which made significant demands on the desert fathers and mothers because their renunciation tried to be complete and transparent.  The danger with any kind of leading by example is that we can be perceived as vainglorious – doing all the right things for the wrong reasons – and so hypocritical, as Abba Poemen suggests: we’re all talk, but our way of life does nothing to back our talk up!

The Pharisees, of course, are depicted in the Gospels as the example-givers par excellence.  They are the bearers of Tradition, but bearers in such a way that their practice sets them apart, and perhaps even makes their Tradition unattainable by others.  This, of course, is a way of exercising control over others – we set ourselves apart by our almost perfect living of a particular life and make sure that those whom we wish to keep in a lower place are never quite able to match our living of the sacred, mystery practices.  Religions have been shaped by this for as long as humanity has been aware of a higher power than itself – and there will always be those who maintain a hierarchical structure which is based, fundamentally, on “them and us”.

Of course, when we listen to Christ in his conversations and interactions with the Pharisees and scribes, we enter a very specific arena.  To speak of the Law in these instances is to speak of a very particular corpus of law, a very special body of norms.  The debate always centres around the Law of Moses – those precepts and observances which are handed on to us principally in what we know as the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, and, for the Jews, known as the Torah.  From the outset we must be clear: the nature of these laws and observances is understood as being given by God to Moses, archetypically during the theophany and encounter on Mount Sinai, as the newly liberated Hebrews made their journey to the Promised Land, and their journey from being Hebrews to being Chosen People and Israel. Thus the Torah is centred on the Ten Words, or Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, which are said to be written by Moses on stone tablets.  But the law which is given is much more than these – it comprises a whole body containing legislation which seeks to provide guidance for every aspect of this people’s life – religious, social, economic, personal and communitarian.  These are not simply codes for moderating behaviour – these are codes without which this people cannot exist.

Should we have any doubt about the quality of the value of the Law in the life of the Jewish people we have only to look at that most human of collections in the Old Testament, the Psalms.  The psalms show, in their amazing and exquisite poetry, every facet of the human person’s relationship with himself, with others, with his environment and every meaningful milieu in which he lives, and with God.  Those who were able to compose these unique works and prayers experienced, more than most of us, all the joys and the griefs, all the vicissitudes and vagaries, of what it is to be human.  And they find a language which has transcended cultural, societal, religious, and epochal boundaries to become a universal expression of humanity’s shared journey.  Woven throughout their songs the relationship to God’s law ebbs and flows, and no more than in that mighty alphabetical psalm, Psalm 118, which begins:

They are happy whose life is blameless,

Who follow God’s law!

They are happy who do his will,

Seeking him with all their hearts,

Who never do anything evil,

But walk in his ways.

You have laid down your precepts

To be obeyed with care.

May my footsteps be firm

To obey your statutes.

Then I shall not be put to shame

As I heed your commands.

I will thank you with an upright heart

As I learn your decrees.

I will obey your statutes:

Do not forsake me.

Psalm 118

And so it goes on, for another 168 verses!  But notice the language – God’s law, God’s will, his ways, your precepts, your statutes, your commands, your decrees… and later, your word, your promise, your paths, and so on.  The one who is singing this song about God’s law is singing a song of joy – God’s law and commands are something which bring life, blessing, delight, sinlessness.  So, when accepted and lived to the full, with a spirit which yearns for what they promise, they are no longer a burden, but a support, and encouragement, a path to life.

But there’s more!  As with all legal systems of norms and precepts and laws, interpretation is necessary – it’s one thing having a law but quite another seeing how it fits into the daily lived lives of those who are subject to it.  This jurisprudence, this interpretive and authentic analysis and application, finds it home with the scribes and lawyers and Pharisees – the scribes speak authoritatively on the content of the Law, and the Pharisees speak in the same way, not now by their opinions, but by how perfectly they observe all that comes with the Law.  And, of course, that goes for the human reading and interpretation which becomes another normative corpus in itself.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this!  Law exists – if it is good law – to guarantee the good order of society and to identify and assign rights and responsibilities to those who live under the law.  The law exists for the common good, at its first level to achieve societal and political harmony and balance.  In Israel’s case, of course, the Law had another very clear purpose – it not only guaranteed good relations between those who were its subjects, but it also sought to regulate their relationship – individually and as a community – with the Legislator: God.  The law, therefore, was an expression of the Covenant – I shall be your God and you shall be my people, which we hear so frequently cited by the Prophets.

Enter Jesus!  As a rabbi, and recognised as one with very peculiar and arresting authority, he has something to say about this Law and how it is both proposed and observed.  And he’s not happy!

A great part of what Jesus says, and particularly in this exchange with the Pharisees and scribes, aims to clarify exactly what the Law is and what its purpose should be.  Here we come to the apparent opposition between the letter of the law and its spirit.  Do we simply and slavishly observe the very many norms and their never-ending and always multiplying addenda and glosses and interpretations?  Or do we set aside these commentaries and ask ourselves: well, what’s really going on here and what does this law want to achieve in practical terms?

In fact, the answer is: neither!  We cannot live on either extreme and hope to live in accordance with the law.  It is never simply a matter of letter or spirit: both are necessary for the richness of law to be brought forth and for real human and religious freedom to be attained.

Jesus is quite specific in that he does not do away with the Law or with the necessity for law.  This is absolutely clear in the early part of the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew 5.  Jesus is clear that the Law (and he is always speaking about the Law of Moses) will not be set aside in even the slightest detail until it has been fulfilled in all respects.  We are called to observe God’s law and not presume that we can filter it through the difficult human situations which we encounter and develop our own take on it, as it were.  The Gospel of John sees Christ presenting a new commandment, or law, which is based on love of one another and the radical service which it must entail (John 13).  And lest we forget, Jesus encourages those who would have eternal life to live by the commandments (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18), and he himself,when questioned, refers to the greatest commandment of the Law (Matthew 22).

Should we be in any doubt as to Jesus’ relationship with the Law (and the writings of the prophets also, which held an exalted place in Jewish life and worship) then we should read again Luke’s marvellous account of the post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and the two disciples on the road to the town of Emmaus.  Not once, but twice, does the evangelist let us know that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that lies at the life-giving heart of the Jewish people (Luke 24).

In the very same way, St Paul, in his letters to the early Christian churches, again and again presents to them his teaching on the Law and why it has been superseded in Christ – and he sets himself up as the authority here, having been born a Jew, being subject to the Jewish Law, and having been a member of the Pharisee party.  So, he is eminently qualified to speak on this!  We should take up the Letter to the Galatians once again to hear Paul’s strong words to the Galatians who have fallen away from his original preaching and begun to drift back toward an old, Jewish covenantal way of living.  And above all, in his Letter to the Romans, Paul sets before believers the law of the Spirit which has been given to us (see, for example, Romans 7 – 9).

Where, then, does this leave us?  In this lectio we are confronted by thoughts which might be articulated thus: authenticity; transparency; integrity; justice; fairness; observance; transgression; freedom; rights; responsibility; punishment and reward.  Notions such as these all cluster around any discussion which we have on the subject of law, and, for the most part, we all would wish to be law-abiding and just to our neighbours.

Undoubtedly, Christ wishes us to look below the surface of merely external observance.  Being good isn’t simply about carrying out orders!  And the law does not exist as an end in itself – that I should be concerned only with observance – but as a means to an end: so that I can grow as a person, through the exercise of my rights and responsibilities, and become generous and selfless in ensuring that my neighbour enjoys those freedoms also.

Christ makes the point that, if we give ourselves wholeheartedly to living God’s law (and he becomes the new arbiter and type of what it is to live God’s law within the ambit of God’s loving mercy) we are not in for an easy time.  It makes demands upon us that we may just try to evade – this is the point of Mark 7:8-9: we can all too readily try to make the law fit what we want it to fit rather than changing our own behaviour to live within its, fairly generous, dimensions.  This is precisely the context in which three “new” “rights” are being promoted by modern societies – the right to abort the child in the womb; the right to contract a same-sex marriage; and the right to end one’s life by either invoking a euthanistic solution or the right to an assisted suicide.  None of these so-called “rights” finds any place in the law which God gives and which he has bedded deep within the nature and dignity of the human person, but rather, are rights created according to the desires of those who would live outside a natural moral law.  And it goes without saying that they turn on their heads the rights which are defined by the nature and dignity of the human person for the common good of all persons in a properly human society.  Needless to say, none of these new “rights” can appeal to any possible origin arising from a religious sensibility which charts relationships both “horizontally” – with one’s fellow human beings – or “vertically” – with a merciful, good, always creating and redeeming God.

As people who take the search for God in our lives seriously, who have a deep desire to come to know Christ and to live life in accord with his invitation and example, and knowing that how we live now is an expression of how we wish to live for eternity, perhaps we should read what St Paul has to say to the Christians of the Church at Colossae.  He wants them to know that accepting the Gospel brings with it a very different attitude to the transformative power of the law of Christ, and the law which is Christ.  But it requires from each of them, and from us, a fundamental change in our mindset, and one which will demonstrate a unity of purpose and of being, between the truth which finds a home within us and the truth which finds expression in our lives.  From that longer passage, Colossians 3:1-17, a few words might be enough to end:

“You have stripped off your old behaviour with your old self, and you have put on a new self which will progress towards true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its creator.”

Colossians 3:1-17

-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-


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