Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 | 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
The Law as a Weapon of Exclusion
Our family thrives on tradition. This past December, my children listed all of the traditions our family has observed during the Advent and Christmas seasons over the years (and there are a lot of them!) and declared we were going to do every one. It was fun—they resurrected practices we hadn’t observed in a while, and we joyfully checked each one off the list. By the time January 6th rolled around, I was so satisfied, we had wallowed in Advent and Christmas, soaked it all in. Some years it feels I have to snatch bits of the holiday as it flies by, but not last year. Last year, the season felt whole, complete, and I was full.
I’ve thought a lot about that season because I would love to carry that sense of satiation with me permanently. I think the season was so edifying was the spirit behind our tradition roll call. Though we definitely worked from our master list, when I remember last Christmas, I don’t recall the re-enactment of individual customs. What I revel in are the emotions, the togetherness the customs created.
I think the heart behind the checklist is exactly what Jesus wanted His listeners to think about in today’s gospel reading.
All traditions break down to that same dichotomy: mere action or actions imbued with a deeper meaning. Mere action is a mere shell: we do something because we’ve always done it. We aren’t changed by our practice, and we don’t feel satiated. That’s what Jesus railed against. He didn’t want religious traditions to be hollow. Spiritual traditions should connect us to God. If they just check a box, they don’t serve their true purpose; they don’t fill us, and they can’t connect us to eternity.
In this section of Mark, Jesus railed not against the tradition itself but against the elder’s focus. God designed the law to focus us on Him, not on the mistakes of others. Jesus pointed out that the breaking of tradition was the primary focus here instead of the meaning. The elders were using the law to exclude. Jesus wants to include, include radically, include beyond our comfort zone. Sometimes that inclusion breaks the rule of tradition, but it doesn’t break the real meaning of it.
Misused, the law can be used to find fault in others. Misused to the extreme, the law becomes a weapon of exclusion, and weapons are used both to protect and to kill. Weaponized words protect the speaker’s pride, and simultaneously kill self-esteem, relationships, love. Individuals have a responsibility to examine the reason they observe the law. Jesus observes it for love. Why do we observe it?