The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – 29 August 2021
Lectionary Readings: Dt 4:1-2,6-8; Ps 15:2-5; James 1:17-18,21-22,27; Mk 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23
Theme: “The word of truth”
The gospel for this Sunday can too readily lead to a condemnation of Judaism as a religion that focuses on externals. Thanks to Bat Kol we may have participated in Netilat Yadayim, the ritual of handwashing and saying a blessing before eating bread. (There is a link to a description of this in the bibliography.) So we might wonder why Jesus would object to a pious custom that helps us appreciate our food as a gift from the Creator, a gift which we should not snatch up and eat thoughtlessly. The danger, however, with pious customs is that they can lead us to a self-centered focus on doing the right things in the right way. Like Pharisees, we can praise ourselves for our admirable behavior and condemn those who in our eyes do not measure up. Another danger of such pious customs is that, because they are man-made and not based on Scripture, they might weaken our reverence for Scripture itself. Who needs it? We can make up our own rules! Our self-admiration, however, is likely to make our connection with the lord grow weaker and weaker. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, quoting Isaiah 29:13, if we treat ”human precepts as doctrine” then our hearts are in danger of being far from the lord.
The other readings for this Sunday emphasize how life-giving Scripture can be and how it has the power to bring our hearts closer to the Lord. The One who gave the Torah on Sinai (Deut. 4:7), is “so near” to us: always within earshot when His people call for help. The word karov, translated as ‘near’, can mean not only physically near as in the phrase ‘near at hand’ but “near” as a neighbor or a relative is near. To this image of the lord as a helpful neighbor, the epistle adds two other images. There is the maternal image of “the lord [who] gave us birth by the word of truth.” To this is added the image of the lord and ourselves working together in a garden. We are to uproot from ourselves, with the Lord’s help, “all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save [our] souls.” The word translated as “implanted” is emphutos. According to Strong’s Greek Concordance, this is the only time this word appears in the New Testament.It comes from roots meaning “in” and “grow or germinate”. Our souls have become like vacant lots, strewn with rubbish, where only weeds will grow—and then a beautiful flower or tree springs up! We now have the strength to “be doers of the word and not merely hearers”.
Reading Scripture can itself become another pious custom, or a matter of habit, something we do because it’s expected of Christians. This Sunday’s readings remind us of the importance, indeed the necessity, of engaging with Scripture, responding to it with our hearts as a gift from our loving Creator.
For Reflection and Discussion: (1) According to Brendan Byrne, writing about this passage, “what is central to human relationship to God is the “heart”, the moral core of a person from which all else proceeds” (Byrne, 122). Where do you experience Scripture more – in your heart or your mind? (2) Think of the times you’ve judged your fellow Christians for not doing things as you do.
Bibliography: Byrne, Brendan, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Collegeville MN: 2008); https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hand-washing/
This week’s Sunday Liturgy Commentary was prepared by
Anne Morton, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna: 2010