29th August 2021
Proper 17: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9, Psalm 15, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today’s passage from Deuteronomy talks in terms of statutes and ordinances, but what the people are being urged to do is to embrace the Torah as the key non negotiable summation of their life. Whilst we often translate the word ‘Torah’ as law it is something more fluid in meaning than the rigidity that law suggests. The word in Hebrew has the meaning of instruction or guidance, or of teaching – of that which flows, say, from the teacher to the disciple, from the parent to the child or above all, from God to God’s people. It can be seen as a concept that describes the relation between God and God’s people. Through the Torah God’s expresses the desire that people should live lives that are good, happy, loving, wise and productive.
The Torah is also used to name the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These five books lay out the story of Gods early relationships with the earth and with human kind and with the Hebrew people in particular. As well as describing this history, it includes laws – statutes and ordinances – that concern both daily life and community life, worship and relationships with God, farming practices, justice etc. Further on in Deuteronomy we hear of the very practical requirements such as setting aside a portion of all they produced – a tithe – to support the vulnerable in their communities and those unable to provide for themselves (Deut 14:28-29). And we hear very spiritual commands: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut 6:4)
Whilst today’s passage talks about statutes and rules as if they were rigid, un-moveable, it helps in our understanding of the overarching nature of the Torah, if we remember that the Book of Deuteronomy is itself a revision of the laws written in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, written for the needs of the nation in the 8th century BCE. It is the loving relationship that God desires that is eternal, whilst the nature of rules is to evolve. In today’s psalm the Psalmist looks at how one finds a right relationship between God and human by observing the characteristics of a person who is living close to Go’s. That person is the one who live ‘a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart’. The Psalmist then adds some flesh to this describing how this person lives their life.
Here we might also recall from last week’s Gospel the words of Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
This thought is echoed in the words of the Letter of James, for ‘every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures’. The gifts of loving and learning and all that shapes our lives, flows to us from God so that we may live as God’s intended creation.
James sees this as a gift that is only of benefit if it is acted upon, if it is built into the fabric of life. If it remains just as words, its benefit is non-existent. This seems to be at the nub of the argument between Jesus and his opponents in today’s gospel. If the law is honoured just as a set of words, but has no impact on the quality of life, has no positive impact on the way we love one another, has no benefit in sustaining our creation as God’s people, the it is of not being observed in the way God intends. The gift that comes from God is pure and undefiled and when received and acted upon, produces blessings. It is how the gift is received and acted upon that is important and when we hear the passage from Mark’s Gospel that is the difference between Jesus’ response and that of his opponents.
It is when we spurn God’s gifts, ignore God’s teaching, that our lives become compromised by fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly. It is when we see other humans, and other creatures, as opportunities for profit, that we cease to feel God’s love. It is when we ignore the needs of the vulnerable – the orphan and the widow, the refugees and the migrant, the wild bee and the tiger, the bluebell and the Amazon rainforest, the contract worker and the carer – that we see lives destroyed and habitats lost; deceit and prevarication in government and big businesses; short term economic policies that fail to address the climate crisis; a lack of vision and determination create polices that ensure protection of the environment, or set up a sustainable care system.
Holy God, through Jesus you show us how to truly live life, how to fill our hearts with love so that love may shape the world in which we live, so bringing your kingdom on earth to be as it is in heaven.