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Sunday 1 September 2024 Trinity 14, Twenty-second in Ordinary time, Proper 17

Beyond Rules and Traditions: Embracing the Heart of God’s Law

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


By Svetlana Khobnya

Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Nazarene Theological College

Context: a diverse Christian congregation with members from various age groups and backgrounds, with different Christian experience

Aims: to explore the significance of the laws and traditions in shaping human behaviour that we draw from Jewish history; to grasp Jesus’ call to understand the deeper meaning behind them; and to ask the question of what this means for us today

In all times and generations, nations and societies operate by a set of rules, designed and intended to keep order, to provide a sense of comfort, and to offer some sort of stability. One of the earliest written legal codes known to us, the Code of Hammurabi, comes already from the eighteenth century B.C.E. It prescribes the standards for commercial interactions and sets fines and punishments to meet the requirements of justice.


The Deuteronomy reading (chapter 4) is another vivid example of the role of law. Deuteronomy presents statues and ordinances spoken by Moses to the people of Israel, famously known as the Torah (instruction, rule, or law). It offers a categorical rule of life for the Jews in all spheres of existence. Its significance is determined not only by the content of the rules but also by the authority of the document that is supposed to draw people closer to God.


Later, more oral traditions were added to the law to spell out further implications and applications of the law itself. These traditions were meant to safeguard the observance of the law.


However, when traditions are raised to a level of self-sufficiency, they negate the real purpose of the law. Also, when the law becomes a means to reach selfish ambitions, it loses its divine purpose. And this is the problem that Jesus addresses in Mark 7:1-23 when his disciples are accused of breaking some traditions.


On the surface, the incident between Jesus and the Pharisees centres on the disciples not adhering to elders’ traditions, specifically eating with unwashed hands. Yet, beneath the surface, the Mark narrative raises a more significant issue: the superiority of Jesus’ authority and the transformative nature of his teaching.


Let us admit that there is nothing wrong with honouring the traditions of the elders; and, certainly, it is only healthy to wash our hands before we eat. In fact, nowhere does Jesus seem to object to these practices. Moreover, Jesus observes Jewish customs on several occasions: he attends synagogue (Luke 4:16), joins festivals (Luke 2:41), fasts (Matthew 4:2) and even wears clothes with ‘fringes’ on the edges (Mark 6:56) in accordance with Numbers 15:38-41.


His answer simply suggests that it is not following the traditions that determines the identity of God’s people but actually knowing what the traditions point to and, therefore, applying them responsively as a way to learn how to love God and each other.


First, drawing from Isaiah Jesus reminds us that no human teaching and no outward piety could substitute a true devotion to God. This is a matter of heart that involves searching for God’s will in everything we do; testing our habits, regulations, and assumptions against God’s word in Scripture. We may appreciate our established good traditions and routines, but we are also to adjust them in the light of new changing circumstances so that our traditions continue to serve God’s good purposes and not the other way around.


Second, Jesus calls us to listen to him. His teaching is superior to any other law or tradition. If external markers or certain appearances are seen as one’s belonging to God, or, on the contrary, if any apparent labels are seen as barriers to serving God, Jesus shifts the focus to internal motivation. What we eat even with hands not properly washed does not make us unworthy of living in God’s presence. Serving God is not contingent on social position; on adherence to certain religious traditions; on ethnicity, gender, or race. True people of God are those who do God’s will. Again, this is reflected in the disposition of our heart and purity of our intention. Bad intentions produce evil actions. A heart set on God produces a life consistent with God’s mercy and goodness toward one another.


If we fail to adopt a mind-set different from some of the Pharisees and scribes who merely critiqued those earnestly trying to follow Jesus, we risk becoming such critics ourselves. Instead, let us strive to be helpers, friends, and supportive brothers and sisters, committed to building one another up in love as we all seek to faithfully follow Christ.


We must create a space in our hearts for God to work – a space where we genuinely listen to his guidance. This is a space where we absorb God’s direction and, in turn, allow him to guide our actions and deeds in the world around us.

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