I saw a commercial for “Little Caesars” pizza the other day where they were advertising their “hot and ready” pizza. The idea is that you can walk in, order a large pizza and get it right away. The customer in the commercial is astounded as he processes this wonderful situation: “No calling; no waiting? . . . There’s no rules!” And he proceeds to take his shirt off. A man off camera yells at him, “Put your shirt back on!” And the man corrects himself as he replaces his shirt: “There’s one rule!” It struck me as funny – how excited he was – even now that there was “one rule.”
Are we happy to receive a set of rules? Do laws get us excited? My guess is that as “free and independent” Americans we are not that keen on being told what to do or how to do it.
However, this is exactly the attitude that Moses is proposing in our first reading. Deuteronomy is a book of the Old Testament where Moses lays out the Law a second time, for clarity, before the people enter the Promised Land. Today, as he is laying out the program that God is giving them in the Covenant, he tells the people that they should actually rejoice in that Law – to be happy. Why?
Moses speaks of other nations looking at them with jealousy and saying, “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people. For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?"
Do we look at laws in the same way? Are we proud of the guidelines that are laid out for us? In our nation, we often point to the Constitution as a shining example of self-rule that has stood the test of time. However, when we are unable to do what we want in this or that pursuit, then rules become restrictive and petty.
Perhaps we have felt the same way about the Church’s rules. Maybe this or that injunction seems silly or backward; however, as we see in the Gospel, this is nothing new.
The Pharisees and scribes knew their law well – not just the Ten Commandments, but an entire system of 630-some regulations that a “good Jew” had to follow meticulously in order to be considered “clean.” When they notice that the disciples failed to wash their hands before eating their meals they spoke up, meaning to point out Jesus’ failure to guide by the letter of the Law.
However, Jesus is keen to their thinking. He sees through the hypocrisy. Raising human rules to the same level of the divine is not faith or good practice – it is presumption, and it is oppressive. Look inward, Jesus says, in essence. It is from within our hearts, where our values and choices spring, that good and evil are determined.
There are rules, yes. God delivers the Commandments and the Law as an expression of His love – in order to lead others toward Him, not away. To know this divine law now means to know the Lawgiver – to know the mind of Jesus, who alone can make all things clean. He is clear: there are evils that we commit - unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
When we are occupied with caring for our own inner soul, we have less time to be like the Pharisees and scribes, judging the behavior of others. I have enough in my own life to worry whether or not my neighbor has washed his hands to eat. In tending to our own souls, we can then be grateful to God that He has given us these guidelines to help up keep ourselves in order. And, we can be especially glad that He has sent His only Son to show us the way and nourish us along that way with His Body and Blood.