The reading, Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8, is from the fifth and last book of the first and most important part of the Bible, which the Jews refer to as the Law, and Christians call the Pentateuch (the five scrolls). The book of Deuteronomy is written as five long speeches of Moses to the people before they enter into the ‘Promised land.’ It was written down at least 300 years after that and comprises mostly a re-presentation of many of the laws and regulations found in earlier parts of the Pentateuch. The insistence on keeping the many laws and customs 2500 years ago would be considered today to be a suppression of the rightful individuality of each person with a particular role in life and vocation from God. But aside from that the reading has a unfortunate attitude towards other nations, their ways of living and their own religions – an attitude of superiority. The verses presented in our reading omit verses 3 – 5 which tell of their God destroying those who don’t accept Him and of God helping the Jews to conquer the land they have been promised to inhabit. This makes us realise how our religious thinking has developed over the centuries.
The reading from the letter of James 1:17-18,21-22,27 fits in well with the other readings. The church took quite a while before it finally agreed that this Letter should be part of the New Testament; and many since then have thought it rather trivial, with Luther referring to it as straw – pretty insignificant stuff. The Letter is addressed to a number of churches made up of Jews who are now Christians and who are not in the land of Israel, but are living in what is called the Diaspora – they are the dispersed Jews. Reformed Christians often maintain that they are saved by faith – by believing in Jesus as the saviour and Son of God; whereas Catholics seem to value many practices like devotions, rituals and other ‘good works.’ This Letter of James actually says that we are saved by works not just by faith. Thankfully, both Catholics and other Christians generally don’t have any disagreement about these matters any more. But what our passage here stresses is that the word of God is actually within us – the laws written in our hearts; and the examples of what we need to do are what we all should hear – being humble, meek and serving the needs of others.
With the gospel reading we have returned to Mark again (Chapter 7, verses 1-8, 14-15 and 21-23) and the chosen passage fits in well with the previous two readings; the first about strict observance of all the rules and the second about helping the needy. We can imagine the situation in the early Church that Mark is addressing when he chooses to relate this story in which some of the important Jews come to Jesus and accuse his disciples of breaking the rules about when and how to eat food; Jesus replies quite confidently that the infringements of these rules doesn’t make anyone irreligious, but it is what a person says and does that might affect their relationship with God. We know that there were arguments among the early Christians about the extent to which the regulations of the Jewish religion apply to Christians – especially convert Gentiles; we know also that Paul and Peter had different views on this matter. Even to this day different ‘shades’ of Christianity and different individuals in various denominations hold rules and regulations in varying degrees of importance.