Recently I read that Hollywood is working on a remake of the SciFi film “Judge Dredd.” Sylvester Stallone starred in the original movie as Judge Dredd, the embodiment of law and order in a future society. Judge Dredd was not only a policeman, he was also the judge, jury and executioner. In that originally movie, Stallone yelled out Dredd’s classic line, “I AM THE LAW!”
While none of us have the power and authority of the Judge Dredd character, haven’t we all at times acted as if we were the law? I think all of us can think of a time when we think that a law or rule applies for everyone else, but not us. We expect everyone else to abide by the traffic laws, but it is OK if we speed, make an illegal turn, or park in a no parking area. Everyone else should wait their turn, but we are in a hurry so it is OK if we cut to the front of the line. We usually talk about how important it is for us to have good laws and for everyone to obey them so that society will run smoothly, but we just aren’t all that good about living up to our talk.
Our readings this weekend talk a lot about the Law, that is God’s Law. In our first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is recalling how he had given the Israelites the Law that God had written Himself on the two tablets of stone at Mt. Sinai. He says that no one is to change God’s Law by adding to it or subtracting from it. Yet in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus seems to take a much more lax attitude about the Law. So what if His apostles do not wash their hands before eating? So which is it? Do we need to follow the Law absolutely, or can we be more lax about it?
Jesus is not suggesting that the Jews do away with the Mosaic Law. Remember, elsewhere in the Gospel Jesus explicitly says that He has not come to do away with even the smallest part of a letter of the Law. However, Jesus does have the authority to interpret God’s Law, and He is criticizing how the Pharisees have turned the Law inside out by making it a matter of simply performing certain external actions. Jesus teaches the Scribes and Pharisees, and us too, that the Law of God is a gift given to us in order to form our hearts; to make us pure so that we will be able to live in the Lord’s presence. The Law is given to us so that we can enter into the Kingdom of God.
In the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments, which are the central core of the Mosaic Law, are often referred to as God’s ten words, and they were given to the Israelites so that by living these “words” or laws of God they would give example to the nations surrounding them. St. James says much the same thing in today’s second reading when he calls the early Christians to live in obedience to God’s Word, in fleshed in the person of Jesus Christ, so that they can give example to those around them who have not yet come to have faith in Jesus.
To better understand the debate in today’s Gospel reading, we need to first realize that the question is not about hygiene, but rather about ritual purity. In the Mosaic Law there were rules governing the cultic purity of priests before they offered the sacrifices and ate their share of these sacrifices. By the time of Jesus, however, the Pharisees had extended these rules for cultic purity to all the people, not just the priests, and for before all meals, not just the sacrificial meals.
Jesus responds to the criticism of the Pharisees against His disciples not by arguing that in their case there is a reason for making an exception to the Law. Rather, Jesus challenges the whole edifice of the Pharisees’ legalism.
Jesus invokes the Prophet Isaiah, who was speaking to the Israelites at a time when most of them had lost their intimate contact with God. They served God with an empty formalism, and not with an authentic love for Him. The people promoted a superficial religiosity as a substitute for true obedience to God’s will.
God does not threaten the Israelites of Isaiah’s time. Rather, He promises to intervene in the lives of the people in such a profoundly wonderful way that they will be moved to acknowledge Him as God, and they will want to honor Him with authentic worship. This promise of God is fulfilled in Jesus: by His Passion, Death and Resurrection, and in His continued presence among us in the Eucharist.
Jesus challenges us today in the same way. He wants to know if we are filled with religiosity or with a genuine love for God and a desire to do His will? Do we come to Mass on Sunday merely to fulfill a religious duty or because we love spending time with God? Are we filled with awe and reverence as we stand before the Eucharist, knowing that God loves us so much to be so near to us, or do we just want to get our “Jesus cookie” and then try to get out of church as quickly as possible? Have we allowed our encounter with Christ Jesus in the Word, Law and Sacrament to revive and transform our hearts for the love of God and neighbor, or is it no big deal and we leave Mass no different than how we came in? Are we doers of the Word, or just hearers of it? Are we the Law, or do we obey God’s law?
The way we honestly answer these questions will tell us if we are hypocrites or genuine disciples of Christ Jesus, the Lord.