Former Indianapolis 500 driver Arnie Knepper once commented, "Every driver and mechanic can’t wait to receive the annual rule book. They all want to start planning how they’re going to get around next year’s regulations."

Mark’s Jesus probably would have smiled at Arnie’s remark and simply said, "Tell me about it." Sunday’s Gospel (Mk 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23) contains some of His thoughts about those who fudge on God’s regulations.

But before we begin, it’s important to understand that, unlike Arnie’s friends, biblical Jews (including Jesus) didn’t regard God’s laws as restrictive. Since the concept of an afterlife, as we know it, didn’t enter Jewish theology until a century before Jesus’ birth, people like the author of Deuteronomy concentrated on being happy and fulfilled in this life (Dt 4: 1-2, 6-8).

Follow the law

To live one’s life poorly, to make mistakes in relationships, or to espouse a destructive philosophy was disastrous. You’d never have a second chance. That’s why Moses begins his speech on Yahweh’s law with the comment, "Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe that your may live....Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.... What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as the whole law that I am setting before you today?"

Since Yahweh knows were all life’s land mines are buried, we need only follow Yahweh’s map, and we’ll enjoy being alive.

Though James believes in an afterlife, he still presumes those who imitate Jesus will experience a more fulfilling life here and now than those who reject His teachings and example (James 1: 17-18, 21-22, 27). He reminds his community, "He [God] willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures." But there’s a price for this privilege. "Be doers of the words and not hearers only, deluding yourselves."

In the Gospel, Jesus is talking to hearers, not doers. His audience especially isn’t into doing what James encourages his readers to do: "Care for orphans and widows in their affliction."

The key to understanding Jesus’ remarks is to remember that He’s talking to "the good folk:" those who regularly offer temple sacrifices, attend synagogue services every Sabbath, and can tick off each of the 613 laws Moses speaks on in the Deuteronomy reading. They wouldn’t think of eating without ritually washing and purifying their hands and utensils.

But at the same time, citing some human-made loophole in the law, they let their elderly parents starve! (Check the verses which have been left out of our liturgical passage.)

Critical Jesus

Jesus isn’t talking to those who skipped church this morning. He delivers these biting words to people who wouldn’t dare miss a Eucharist of obligation, can quote paragraph numbers from the new Catechism and are able to name all the 20th-century popes in succession.

He saves His most cutting Isaiah words for this audience: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts."

The devotees of organized religion have traditionally created customs and doctrines which seem religious, yet contradict God’s commands. Such practices enable us to concentrate on the minutiae and loopholes of religion, and ignore the essentials of faith.