Those who regard God's rules and regulations as limits and restrictions on their freedom can't understand or appreciate Sunday's first reading (Dt 4:1-2, 6-8). The author of Deuteronomy has a different mindset. He has no concept of an afterlife as we know it -- no heaven, no hell. The writer knows just this life.

If he thinks in terms of a heaven or hell, he imagines them embedded in the confines of his earthly existence. Since the Israelites of this era have no idea of eternal reward or punishment, they believe they'll experience joy and suffering only in their daily lives. They long for and respect Yahweh's "statutes and decrees" because these regulations give them a key which unlocks the door to heaven on earth.

That's why Moses instructs his people, "Observe (Yahweh's laws) carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, `This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.'"

Two problems

As good Jews, Jesus and His first disciples worked hard to carry out Yahweh's commands. But as reformers, they often confronted two problems which constantly plague those who follow God.

James tackles the first (James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27). "Act on this word," he writes. "If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourselves." It's not hard to surface God's commands, to study and even discuss them. But God's laws are meant to be a force which changes our behavior, not just the stuff of theology classes.

James drives his point home. "Looking after orphans and widows in their distress," he reminds his community, "and keeping oneself unspotted by the world make for pure worship without stain before our God." In God's eyes, the smallest act of love is a million times more valuable than the greatest collection of the world's knowledge.

Jesus addresses the second difficulty in the Gospel (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23). Though we often carry out certain, specific actions because we believe they're God's law, we must always be on our guard that we're actually carrying out God's commands and not fulfilling some external "religious" formalities.

Quoting Isaiah, Jesus condemns such behavior. "`This people pays me lip service,'" He notes, "`but their heart is far from me. Empty is the reverence they do me because they teach as dogmas mere human precepts.' You disregard God's commandment and cling to what is human tradition."

At this point, Jesus gives an example of these fraudulent practices, an example left out of our liturgical passage. "Moses said, `Honor your father and your mother.' Yet you say, `If a person says to father or mother, "Any support you might have had from me is qorban'" (meaning dedicated to God), you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on."

In other words, those who dedicate or will their money to a religious purpose, cause or institution are no longer obligated to care for their parents with that money.

Clash of laws

When that example comes up in the interfaith dialogues in which I participate, the Jewish representative usually protests that nothing in Jewish law or tradition indicates such a practice ever existed.

I respond that it really doesn't matter, since, until recently, a similar practice existed in my own Church. Only after Vatican II did many religious orders of men and women accept responsibility for the care of their parents or their community members. Before then, we assumed a child's dedication to God absolved him or her from any parental obligations.

Visits and communication were rare and strictly regulated. And, in the case of my own great-grandfather, his daughter (a geriatric nurse in a hospital less than a two-hour drive away) was forbidden -- by "religious" law -- to come to his bedside as he lay dying, asking for her! We can never forget that the Gospels were written to help Christians reflect on the implications of their faith, not to bash Jews.

Though we should carry out God's law, and not just talk about it, we must talk about it enough to discover what really is and isn't God's law.