Maturity in Faith

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Something odd seems to be going on with this Sunday’s readings.  In our first reading, Moses says to observe the decrees he is about to proclaim carefully, and “not add to what I command you nor subtract from it” (Dt 4:2).  But in our gospel reading, Jesus appears to do just that.  He argues that His followers do not need to observe the ritual purity laws Moses commanded.  “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person” our Lord says, “but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mk 7:15).

Is Jesus contradicting Moses?  Is there a conflict in our faith here?  What is going on?

Understanding the context of the readings helps to shed light on the seeming contradiction.  Our first reading is from the book of Deuteronomy.  The word deuteronomy literally means “second law.”  That rather begs the question, “what is the first law?”  To answer that question we must look to Exodus and the story of the Golden Calf.  Picture the scene: Moses has ascended to the top of Mt. Sinai where he is receiving the law of God (primarily expressed in the Ten Commandments).  Meanwhile the people of Israel encamped at the bottom of the mountain construct a golden calf and begin to worship it instead of God.

Rather than smite out the Israelites for idolatry, God instead imposed another, stricter law upon the Jewish people.  This second law was not in conflict with the first law, but was meant to discipline the unruly children of Israel and help them to understand and live out that first law.  Think of it in terms of a parent/child relationship.  Children who understand the need to respect their parents and their siblings won’t need a lot of additional household rules.  But the parents of unruly children will utilize strict rules to impose discipline in the home; curfews, mandatory chores, limits on phone or game time, etc.  The rules are not imposed for their own sake.  The purpose of the rules is to help the children learn to respect their parents, their siblings, and themselves.  At a certain point it is hoped that the rules would no longer be needed because the children understand the principles behind the rules and will conduct themselves according to those principles.

This is the problem that Jesus had with the Pharisees.  They followed the rules but cared little for the principles behind them.  “This people honors me with their lips,” Jesus quotes from Isaiah, “but their hearts are far from me” (Mk 7:6, cf Is 29:13).

The Pharisees in today’s reading are concerned with the laws dealing with ritual purity. Jesus reminds them (and us) of the true meaning of purity.  Nothing coming from the outside can make us impure, but only things that come from within such as unchastity, evil thoughts, greed, malice, envy and arrogance.  These are the things we need to be on guard against. The ritual purity laws exist to remind us of the need to keep our souls pure against corrupting sins.

Christians are no longer bound by the laws of Moses.  (Check out this article for more on that).  But the Ten Commandments are still in effect.  There are certain behaviors (sins) which we must not do because they are incompatible with our human dignity.  The Church also has disciplinary laws regarding when we should fast, how we are to marry, and so forth.  One may be tempted to look upon the rules of the Church today as “outdated” or even Pharisaical.  Isn’t loving Jesus enough?

The answer, of course, is yes.  Loving Jesus is enough.  But what sort of love is it that pays no heed to the will of the beloved.  Jesus desires our good.  Moreover, He knows us perfectly and so He knows what is truly good for us.  He knows that we can only ever be truly happy if we have purity of heart.  How we behave and what we believe has everything to do with keeping our hearts pure.  The Pharisees’ chief sin was that of hypocrisy.  Jesus desires us to be authentic believers, exhibiting union of heart, mind and body.

The Catechism teaches us that “there is a connection between purity of heart, body, and of faith” (CCC 2518). St. Augustine, whose feast we celebrate on Aug. 28, wrote of the interconnection between what we believe, how we live, and the purity of our hearts.  Faithful Christians need to believe in the Church’s doctrine “so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe” (De fide et symbolo 10, 25).  

One of the most quoted quotes from this quotable saint comes from the introduction to his Confessions.  “You made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You.”  There is a fabulous painting of St. Augustine by Flemish painter Phillipe de Champaigne.  In this painting, Augustine is portrayed gazing at Veritas (Truth).  On his other side, Augustine is holding his heart, which is on fire.  The flames from his heart are being drawn toward the light emanating from the Truth, and directly between them is Augustine’s head, aglow with holiness.  It illustrates the unity between what we know, how we live, and what we love.
The moral law is written on our very hearts by God, for our own good.  The moral precepts of the Church are likewise taught for our benefit, so that we may know better the moral law of God and know how we ought to live.  Knowing God’s truth — and living God’s truth — leads to purity of heart, which leads to our eternal joy.