Sunday’s readings deal with a question that many people have: how should the laws of the Old Testament be understood by Christians? The one who answers this question is Jesus Himself. Since Jesus is God and God is the One who revealed the law in the first place, it makes sense that Jesus has the authority to reveal a deeper, purified understanding of the law to his listeners.

In Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), Jesus does just that. The Pharisees and the scribes object to the fact that the disciples of Jesus do not observe “the traditions of the elders.” Mark then gives a brief list of some examples of these traditions (washing hands, purifying vessels, cups and plates, etc.). Jesus does not rebuke His disciples, however. Instead, He puts the objection back on the Pharisees and, quoting Isaiah, says that they teach the precepts of men but leave the commandment of God.

The “precepts of men” that Jesus refers to are the traditions of the elders, traditions put in place to help the Jews observe the law by intensifying its requirements. For example, the washing of hands, cups and vessels was meant as a way to keep people and things in a state of purity, like creating a buffer around them. These little traditions took on a life of their own, however, and people began to think that they were as important as the law itself. Jesus saw that the Pharisees were more concerned about the dishes than charity, and He points out their mistake.

Jesus does not want to humiliate them, though. Rather, He wants to bring the Pharisees back to an understanding of the heart of the law. The law was given so that our hearts would be healed and made whole. You can follow all the dietary rituals in the world perfectly and still never love God. Jesus wants to show the Pharisees (and us) the way out of this legalistic way of relating to God because it stifles the rich friendship for which we are truly made. This is why Jesus declares that all foods are clean, and they do not defile the one who eats them. In other words, what you eat does not make you impure and does not change your “status” with God. It will not destroy your friendship with Him. What does make you impure is your actions — these do change our relationship with God. The acts that Jesus lists are both interior and exterior, meaning things that are seen (like fornication, theft and murder) and things that are known only to ourselves (like evil thoughts, covetousness, envy and pride).

By teaching us the importance of our freely chosen acts, Jesus invites us into a greater responsibility for what we choose and how we direct our lives. Sunday’s Second Reading picks up on this very well. James exhorts us to put away all “filthiness and rank growth of wickedness” — strong words, but they are right in line with Jesus’ words, emphasizing that interior love of God’s law which then shows itself in action, caring for widows and orphans … in other words, mercy.

Jesus’ teaching unlocks the true meaning of the law.  As we hear in Sunday’s First Reading (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8), the Israelites were told to keep and do the commandments of the Lord. The commandments were not about picayune details like washing vessels; they were for teaching wisdom and understanding. That is what Jesus is getting back to. Jesus calls His hearers to a renewed love of the law of God. It is truly a law that sets us free.