Going beyond

by Roger Karban

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Today's three readings bring up one of most vexing issues of biblical faith. Just what religious rules and regulations does God demand we keep, and which ones can we discard? Is it possible that some of our most fervently kept laws don't even come from God?


Twenty-second Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
Psalm 15
James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Law-keeping goes back as far as Scripture does. But keeping religious laws didn't always provide a ticket into heaven, as many modern Christians believe. The majority of our Jewish ancestors knew nothing of a heaven or hell as we conceive it.

Such a belief didn't enter Judaism until the century before Jesus' birth, when some Pharisees received the insight we find in the first chapter of Wisdom. They began to realize that if we build a proper relationship with Yahweh in this life, the eternal Yahweh will continue that relationship into eternity.

Today's Deuteronomy author, writing about 500 years before that game-changing insight, clearly tells his readers why they're to keep God's laws: "that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which Yahweh, the God of your ancestors, is giving you." In other words, that you may have a long and fulfilled life right here and now. Only a fool would waste the only life he or she will ever experience; only a fool would ignore the 613 laws of Moses that guarantee a long, fulfilling life.

But how do we know which of these 613 laws or any other biblical regulations are from God and which have been created by human beings? In today's Gospel, Jesus zeroes in on that distinction.

Some scholars of the Christian Scriptures contend that, because of the way Gospels were created, we can know practically nothing about the historical Jesus. Yet even the most rigorous of these "experts" concede that this particular Palestinian Jewish carpenter -- who lived between 6 B.C. and 30 A.D. -- had a reputation for either breaking religious laws, or finding ways around them.

When his followers later remembered his ministry among them, they also remembered his law-breaking personality, something essential for those committed to carrying on his ministry. What regulations are we to keep, and which ones are we free to break?

Mark's Jesus distinguishes between human and divine regulations. Just because someone is faithful in adhering to "the tradition of the elders" is no guarantee he or she is actually keeping God's law.

 The evangelist already pointed this out in Chapter 2, beginning Jesus' public ministry with a series of "conflict stories," demonstrating his conviction that people don't surface God's kingdom around them by just keeping an institution's rules and regulations. God only becomes evident, working effectively in our lives, when we go beyond -- and even counter to -- what organized religion demands.

According to both the historical and risen Jesus, rules should change when one is made aware of the harmful effects of those rules. That seems to be why he insists we always remember the Sabbath was made for us, not vice versa. Laws were created to help us, not simply to be obeyed.

In the upcoming second session of the Synod of Bishops on the family, Pope Francis seems to be following the process the Gospel Jesus employed in determining which laws should be kept and which adapted.

The first step in changing any regulation is to be totally honest about its effects. Francis has consistently called for such honesty, assuring the synod's participants that they're free to say whatever they believe should be said. He's challenged the bishops, in turn, to surface the laws' effects on their people by listening to the experiences of the families in their dioceses.

In his book Turning Point, the late Bob McClory narrated what happened to the majority of Paul VI's Birth Control Commission when Pat and Patricia Crowley shared with them the survey they'd taken of the members of the Christian Family Movement. These "ideal" Catholic couples were asked about their experiences of natural family planning methods in their marriages. They gave answers no one on the commission anticipated. The responses told what was actually happening.

Are we on the verge of a similar turning point? Even though I can't find the exact saying in the Bible, honesty is always the best biblical policy.

[Fr. Roger Vermalen Karban is pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Renault, Ill.]

A version of this story appeared in the August 14-27, 2015 print issue under the headline: Going beyond.

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