In the summer of 2006 I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Our group of about 45 stayed in various hotels around Israel where every morning we enjoyed a fabulous breakfast buffet. One thing was invariably missing at those meals--bacon and ham and pork sausage. We were clearly in Jewish territory.
In today's Gospel from Mark chapter 7 Jesus says that it is not the food we eat that makes us "unclean" but rather what we think and what we do--"evils [that] come from within and they defile."
Jesus also confronted the purification rites of the Jewish religion. Eating a meal with "unwashed hands" was a not a matter of hygiene. At the time of Jesus it was a religious ritual by which people purified themselves of the "unclean" world before sitting down to share a meal with other believers. In going against this purification ritual Jesus was declaring that the Creator made the world "good." We find God not just in temples or churches but in the goodness and beauty of creation.
Tomorrow we will celebrate Labor Day, the last holiday of the summer, a day on which we honor the dignity of human labor. It's a good time for us to remember that we give worship to God not only when we gather in church but in every moment of our lives. Our entire life, including our work and our recreation, is meant to give honor and glory to God.
This is where our Second Reading from the first chapter of the Letter of James comes in. James writes: "All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights...." Creation is a gift from God and shares in the goodness and holiness of the Giver. Human talents and skills are also gifts from God, given so that humanity can be good stewards of creation, caring for it and developing it for the good of the entire human family. When James writes "Be doers of the word and not hearers only," we can remember the word God spoke at the beginning--to labor together in caring for good creation.
Thus we come to our First Reading from chapter 4 of the Book of Deuteronomy which speaks of obeying God's "statutes and decrees." These are God's commandments and not the human rituals regarding unclean foods and purification rites. God's Law goes deeper and affects our well-being on earth and in eternity.
We are all familiar with the laws of nature. We do well to follow them, for if we don't, we end up hurting ourselves and others.
For example, physical objects follow the law of gravity. It's built into their nature as physical creatures. Humans are physical creatures and need to follow this law or get hurt and even die. We are free not to follow it, to rebel against this law that restricts our freedom to launch ourselves off a high tower and flap our arms hoping to fly like a bird. God's law of gravity will still be in force. We won't so much break that law as break ourselves in thinking that we are above God's law and don't have to follow it.
But we are more than physical creatures. We are more than bodies that need to follow the law of gravity for their own good. We are bodies with immortal souls. We are spiritual creatures. And just as there are physical laws built into our nature as physical beings, so there are spiritual laws built into us because we are spiritual beings. We are free not to follow those laws but if we rebel against them we end up hurting ourselves and others. Like physical laws, these spiritual laws are not arbitrary, nor are they imposed from on high to restrict our freedom. They are part of nature, part of the reality of who we are.
Ultimately, Jesus summed up the spiritual laws of nature in one word--love. Love God and love your neighbor. It's not enough to hear this word from the Son of God who only wants our good. We must be "doers of the word" and put it into practice. Following the law of love means being true to our nature as creatures made in the image and likeness of God who is Love itself. If we do this then we will, as Deuteronomy says, "give evidence of [our] wisdom and intelligence."