“Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”
At the start of the reflection that we make of the Sunday readings, the exhortation of Moses to the people of Israel brings us to the heart of the covenant that is established between the Lord and his people. The giving of the Law by God to his people is that which seals this special relationship; from being “no-people”, Israel becomes God’s special portion among the nations. The Law becomes that which defines the life and identity of Israel, and regulates the life of the people not only as a nation, but also as individual persons. For Israel, it is the supreme expression of God’s will, and the condition for the people if they want to receive to the full the blessings that are fruit of their special relationship with God. Faithful observance of the Law of the Lord, given to the people through Moses, is manifestation of wisdom and pledge of God’s favor.
Considering this, it would be understandable why Israel was so keen in trying to obey and absorb this expression of the divine will. The law of God, expressed in a precise manner in the Ten Commandments, has been imprinted in man’s heart and in his nature by his Creator. In order to be more faithful to Law, the Israelites further formulated provisions and traditions that were designed to make its observance more amenable, in order to insert it more in the daily life of each individual person. These human traditions, and the clauses that came from the fundamental expression of God’s law (the Ten Commandments), were supposed to aid man in living the will of God in a more profound way; as signposts, they were supposed to guide man how to live according to the spirit of the law, and to express in his life that which lies at its heart: to love the Lord with one’s whole being, and to love neighbor as oneself.
But just as any instrument could be used wrongly, human traditions and further elaborations of the law could also divert us from living what the Law actually enjoins us to do. In the Gospel we see the Lord Jesus finding fault in the example of the Pharisees, who had placed so much importance in the mere observance of the Law. Applying to them the words of the prophet Isaiah, he qualifies the worship that they give to the Lord as vain and false, in teaching as doctrines mere human precepts. By focusing so much on external trappings and provisions of the law, they have lost sight of the real meaning of worship. He points out that true worship starts from within a man’s heart, just as it is from the depths of the person that abominations rise: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile”.
Be careful to note that the Lord Jesus does not pour scorn on human traditions and the interpretation of the law; it is rather that these traditions—which have risen from the desire to be able to follow God’s law and thus live it more meaningfully in our loves—have diverted man from the true meaning of fidelity to the divine commandments. To love God with one’s whole being and to love neighbor as oneself: this is that which constitutes the heart of the law, and that which lies at the root of all human tradition. The Word of God enjoins us to look at our own way of living out the commandments of God, how we apply these into our lives, and to rectify our intention wherever it is lacking.
Rectifying our intention in living the law of God (who is love) means welcoming this law, this word that comes from God. The Apostle St. James, in the Second Reading, explains that humbly welcoming the word means not limiting ourselves to listen to it, but rather to become doers of the word as well. Living according to the commandments (which have Charity at its heart) does not only mean living in a way that would be pleasing to God, by living good, moral lives; but living a life that is characterize for a genuine love of neighbor, especially for those who are needful of our help: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world”. (from the Second Reading according to the letter of James). To love our neighbor—especially the poor—in an authentic way is to desire that which is TRULY good for them, not merely that which is apparently good. This is most especially true in our society, wherein we try to find solutions in order to alleviate the suffering of the poor and our people at large. We—along with our lawmakers and leaders—should come up with solutions that are would truly help raise the standard of life in our society, with laws that keep in mind the deepest truths about the human person and his dignity, and are in line with the divine law, which is the only absolute law on earth. We should not be swayed by solutions that have the appearance of good, ones that would only bring about positive results that are immediate but not long-lasting, ones that would in the end would lead us to more ruin than betterment of life.
Our reflection of the Gospel should also allow us to examine ourselves as Catholics—children of the Father, disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Church enlivened by the Holy Spirit—in the way we live our lives. Let us ask ourselves sincerely if we are really living the law of God, expressed in the Gospels and taught by the teaching authority of the Church; or according to a moral law that we have merely made up for ourselves just to make us more comfortable. Let us examine our traditions and devotions, rectifying them and purifying them if they lead us away from the true love of God and neighbor. May our lives be patterned after the love of Jesus Christ, who was obedient to his loving Father and who loved man so much as to give his life for him and take it back so that man might live; may it be patterned after the love of the Virgin Mary and that of the saints, who serve as our models in the struggle to live this authentic love for God and neighbor. AMEN.