The Jews received the 10 commandments from God, but over the years the scribes and Pharisees amplified the laws to include 613 precepts, by-laws, sections, and sub-sections. It makes one wonder what became of the warning given by Moses in today’s first reading (Deut. 4:2) that people should not add or take anything out of God’s law. Observing the strict letters of the law would, according to Moses, demonstrate to other people the wisdom and understanding of God’s own people. On this law lies their greatness as wise people.
Yet, the law can often become torturous when instead of observing its spirit people become clogged in the flotsam of manipulative interpretations. One cannot fail to be amazed at the extent to which the scribes and Pharisees amplified the law to accommodate their “tradition of the elders.” For example, it is understandable that for reasons of hygiene people should wash their hands before meals. However, it is difficult to understand why the washing should extend to the elbow or why upon returning from the marketplace people are not expected to eat without first sprinkling themselves. How burdensome tradition was could best be understood in terms of a farmer constantly coming in contact with unclean insects and being under the constraint to wash all the time.
Given all these requirements of tradition, one can see why Jesus expressed impatience with the scribes and Pharisees to the extent of calling them hypocrites who put aside the commandments of God to cling to human traditions. The same impatience can often be expressed with regard to some people choosing their own interpretation of God’s laws or the precepts of the Church. For example, a penitent confesses eating meat on Ash Wednesday because while flossing she removed a small piece she ate on Fat Tuesday or the Jehovah’s witnesses insisting that there will be only 144,000 in heaven.
Of all nations on earth, America prides itself as a nation of laws, and indeed we are, primarily because the rule of law is not present everywhere. There are many lawless places on earth where people do not and cannot have confidence in the structures of justice that are in place; where justice would have to be bought or bribed away. Yet, how laws can be misinterpreted and often changed to fit the desires of men can also be seen in some of our laws when you consider that our constitution has also become caught up and clogged in the wheels of interpretation by the scribes and Pharisees of our time, namely—activist lawyers, judges, politicians and professors. Today, urged on by the crafty schemes of trial lawyers you can sue for virtually anything and have the chance to win. We have been shocked to witness in our time the law of privacy upending natural law as seen in the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage. A few years ago, a brazen legal twist in our nation’s laws occurred during the trial of Scott Peterson who was convicted of killing his wife and unborn baby. While the legal arguments around Roe vs Wade established that a child in the womb was not a human person, in Peterson’s case, the child suddenly became a human person. Yet, lawyers and judges, bereft of morality, knowingly continue to twist, snap, spin, and transverse the natural law in order to keep abortion legal.
Jesus tells us to disregard these twists and follow our formed consciences in order to live pure, unspoiled lives. Pure religion, according to St. James in the second reading involves coming to the help of the needy and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world. Jesus lists for us the things that can make us unclean—fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. Do you find any of them in your life? Then you are certainly unclean and will need the spiritual cleansing of sacramental confession.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo