An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 7:1-8,14-15.21-23, September 2, 2012
MIKHAIL GORBACHEV’S CHIEF military adviser committed suicide on September 25, 1992. Unlike Pavlov or Yanayev, he was not linked with the coup plotters. It was believed that he killed himself because he could not imagine, still less bear to see, the fall of the Russian Empire, the USSR. In other words, the world that gave meaning to his being a Russian and being a part of the Russian government collapsed. What is significant to us is the world that gave meaning to the existence of the Russian people—it is a world mediated by communist teaching. In sociology, such a world is called symbolic universe. It defines what it means to be a Russian, it regulates the way of life of the citizens, and it makes them what they are. Of course, life would be difficult without such universe, for it would be meaningless.
At the time of Jesus, the symbolic universe that regulated the relationship between the individual and the Jewish society, between a Jew and his fellow Jews was the Law of Moses. By this is meant not only the Ten Commandments or the Pentateuch, but the entire Old Testament. The Law defined the people of God and stipulated the way of life that a Jew must live. So, just as what defines the Filipino way of life is the Philippine Constitution, so what regulated the Jewish way of life was the Law. Understandably enough, the Jews must observe it faithfully if they wished to live a meaningful life. Thus the 1st Reading: “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 the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. In your observance of the commandments of the Lord your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command nor subtract from it” (Deut 4:1-2). Because of the centrality of the Law in Jewish life, it is not surprising that they have been called a people of the Law.
But must Christians, qua Christians, make the Law central to their life?
As we learned in the preceding Sundays, Jesus declared himself the bread of life. If we want to live, if we wish to have eternal life, we must eat the bread of life. As we noted, in John’s Gospel, this means two things. First, since Jesus as bread of life is God’s wisdom, we must become something like the incarnate word, the Bible people read,, or , in the words of St Paul, the letter of Christ, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God (2 Cor 3:2). Since Jesus as bread of life is God’s sacrament, the Spirit lives in us and we live in him, and we mediate Christ’s presence to men. Of course, such a view is not found in the Gospel of Mark, but the thought is not foreign to it, for by his criticism of the Law, Jesus in Mark is trying to say that he is the norm of life, he it is who regulates the relationship between God and the people, between the individual and society, and among the members of the community. Not the Law but first of all Jesus, or in John, the bread of life, constitutes the symbolic universe for Christians. Here, Law is relativized—it finds its fulfillment only in Jesus.
It is for this reason that in the Gospel, Jesus criticized the Law. If religion were solely concerned with the observance of the law, it would probably be very easy to practice it. To go to church regularly, to abstain from meat, to give contribution to charities—these are not difficult to do. But according to the Gospel, there is a danger that we might separate these from the intention of the commands of the law—the matters of the heart and of the spirit. The law, at its bottom, is really rooted in the love of God in men. To be sure, our external life may be faultless, but the heart is full of evil and bitter thoughts. Rightly then Jesus quoted Isaiah: “This people pays me lip service, but their heart is far from me. Empty is the reverence they do me because they teach as dogmas mere human precepts” (Isa 29:13; Mark 7:6b-7). The heart is hardly within the sphere of the Law. But even more important, Jesus replaced the role of the Law. What regulates a pleasing life before God is not the law, but Jesus himself.
As we noted in John, this is what eating the bread of life means. But for Mark, who seldom uses signs, Jesus’ criticism of the Law is his own way of saying that the center of Christian life is not the Law, but Jesus himself—his life and ministry, but especially his passion, death and resurrection. If communism follows the doctrine of Marx for its symbolic universe, Christians follow the person of Jesus who gives meaning to the Christian world view. Since Jesus is the center of Christian life, this implies that one cannot be a Christian by merely following the Law. No wonder that in the 2nd Reading, James exhorts his reader to welcome the word—the word of salvation that, in the New Testament, is none other than Jesus himself—and to act upon it: “Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you, with its power to save you. Act on this word. If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourself” (James 1:21b-22). In Luke, of course, to welcome the word and act on it is what discipleship, a life centered on Jesus, means—a thought which is not foreign to James.