We should regard the readings today as an extended meditation on the role of law in our lives. We are talking of course of religious laws not secular ones.
Actually in the beginning there was just law as there was no clear difference between the religious and the secular; this distinction is something that has only come about gradually through history.
Even at the time of Jesus in Judaism there was only one body of law which was enforced by the religious authorities. The little phrase at the beginning of the Gospel indicates this; the Pharisees had come down from Jerusalem. We know very well that Jerusalem was the centre of the Jewish faith and the source of all authority.
So this little phrase indicating that they came from Jerusalem heightens the fact that these particular Pharisees were a sort of religious police. They had come to build a case against Jesus. Even the fact that they do not openly criticise him but instead direct their focus on the behaviour of his Disciples is an indication that their purposes are evil. The implication being that if the Disciples offend against the law then their transgressions become the responsibility of their Master.
We have here in our readings a rather good meditation on the uses and abuses of law. God issues instructions but these are not arbitrary commandments, they are given to us to help us to live in harmony with one another. These laws, the Ten Commandments, are wise injunctions for the good ordering of society. That is the main point made in the First Reading today.
However, as time passed these basic laws had been built on until, by the time of Jesus, there were 613 individual laws which the Jews were expected to follow.
The Law had therefore become oppressive and was being used by the Pharisees and others to keep themselves in a position of power over the people.
Be clear, Jesus does not dismiss the Law but he condemns its misuse. And the Pharisees were certainly guilty of misusing the Law by placing heavy burdens on the shoulders of the people.
The ritual hand washing before eating has its origins in the common sense practice of washing one’s hands before eating a meal, something any sensible person would do. But by the time of Jesus this custom had become incorporated into the Law, it had become much more elaborate and was accompanied by prayers as a way of consecrating the whole day and all one’s actions to God.
This is fine and good, but it should not become a burden or become a reason for accepting some people and rejecting others, depending on whether they observed these prescriptions or not.
Jesus cuts through all of this and turns it around and accuses the Pharisees of honouring God with lip-service while their hearts are far from him. Jesus sees the true purpose of the Pharisees, he knows that they are there to build a case against him and that their fine words about these Jewish customs are just a pretext and he gives them pretty short shrift.
Jesus points out that nothing that goes into a man can make him unclean, it is what comes out of him that makes him unclean. Jesus goes to the very core of the matter and tells us that it is not whether we fail to perform this or that pious act that makes us evil but the desires of our heart.
It is our heart that we have to look at; we have to examine the seat of our wishes and desires to see whether we conform to God’s laws or not.
I don’t want here to go through a long list of poisonous thoughts that we might have, but would rather point out that the way to really live a wholesome Christian life is to base our lives firmly on the virtues.
These are the basic virtues: faith, hope and charity; but the virtues also include things like temperance, humility, justice, patience, kindness, generosity and so on.
It is by cultivating these virtues in our lives that we will be sure that we are living the kind of life that God wants. We will have moved away from doing this or that particular action and on to living a live filled with love and all the good things that God wants.
What all this comes down to is cultivating a series of particular attitudes, internal motivations which are consonant with the Christian life. It is by developing these that we will be sure that we are living a life worthy of the Gospels.
The more we live our lives like this the more we realise that it is on these virtues that all good laws are based. The good thing about this approach to law is that it does not concentrate so much on the specifics of how the law is drafted –you can do this but not that– as on the character of the individual person involved.
What we are interested in then is building up the individual person as someone who acts correctly whatever the circumstances might be. This is what goes on in the Christian family where the parents through their own example and teaching bring up their children to be people who act in a moral way in accordance with the Gospel.
We should never underestimate the importance of this Christian moral formation for the good of society and for the individual. In fact it is something that we are lacking more and more in society at large, as with the breakdown of the family more and more children are being left to their own devices and brought up without any kind of moral compass in their lives.
In our Gospel text Jesus rightly castigates the Pharisees for concentrating on trivial elements of the Law because by doing this they miss the bigger picture. Those Pharisees should be asking themselves what is the right thing to do, rather than looking for loopholes in the Law which they can use to catch Jesus out.
The wonderful meditation from the Letter of St James gives us a very fine approach to these things in his wonderful words: ‘Accept and submit to the Word which has been planted in you and can save your souls.’
It is the Word of God then that should be the ultimate measure of our actions.