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Bulletin: August 29, 2021

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today’s readings provide some interesting parallels and contrasts. The first reading is an account of Moses who, having delivered the Law to the Israelites, admonishes them to “observe them [its statutes] carefully.” The author of the Letter of James likewise instructs fellow Christians to “welcome the word” they have received, that they may become “doers of the words and not hearers only.” The psalmist praises “whoever walks blamelessly and does justice” by listing a few examples of what is required for that—descriptions that apply equally to both Jewish and Christian traditions. On the other hand, when the scribes and Pharisees point out that the disciples have not properly washed their hands before eating (which is, as Mark explains, the usual Jewish practice) Jesus scolds them sharply for being too focused on human rules—even ritual ones—instead of God’s laws.


Moses gives the Israelites their Law, which provided the structure for daily life. As recorded in the Bible, over half of the Law is about rituals for worship and sacrifice. A related concept is the concept of a person’s ritual purity (or cleanliness), which is required for participation in both social and religious activities, since persons become unclean by physical contact with other unclean persons, animals, or objects. Other ways a person becomes unclean include the presence of skin lesions, bleeding, or a bodily discharge. Unclean persons are required to purify themselves to be again considered clean. Despite the Law’s complexity, observant Jews considered it a privilege, not a burden, to observe its precepts, and they continue to do so today.


The scribes and Pharisees are focusing on the disciples’ failure to properly wash their hands prior to eating. But nowhere in the biblical texts of the Law are there regulations regarding the washing of hands before or after meals. These regulations, as described by Mark, are merely practices like those that arise in all societies; if they continue long enough, they can seem like sacred duties, sanctified as “the traditions of their elders.”

This distinction is the source of the tension in these three readings. Moses and James both tell their people that they are recipients of a divine gift that requires special care, while Jesus is practically livid when the scribes and Pharisees react harshly to the disciples’ failure to wash their hands according to Jewish practices.

Such a distinction between divine law and human practices is valuable for our own lives. When we hear of another’s misdeeds, we should evaluate the seriousness of the offense before forming our own impression. Is this truly a serious moral matter? Or something less weighty? Carefully discerning the seriousness of such matters might reveal that things are not as grave as they first appear. Such care is an exercise in Christian charity, one way of acting on the word we have received as members of the Body of Christ.

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