'Be doers of the Word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves...' -- James 1:22

Even the most liberal Scripture scholars, convinced we can know almost nothing about the historical Jesus, admit there's one thing about this first-century Palestinian carpenter that we do know for certain: He was a law-breaker.

Already back in chapter 2, Mark strings together a series of narratives in which Jesus' (and His disciples') law-breaking sets off confrontations with His law-abiding critics. So it shouldn't surprise us that, in chapter 7, Mark's Jesus reaches a point (Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23) where He teaches that His followers don't have to follow even the venerable Jewish dietary regulations.

"Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person," He points out. "But the things that come out from within are what defile."

Since many of us don't appreciate the historical Jesus' Jewish background, we also don't appreciate the importance of His skirting many of the rules and regulations at the heart of His religious practices.

Rules are needed
As we hear in Sunday's Deuteronomy (4:1-2,6-8) reading, Moses couldn't be clearer about the obligation assumed by all Israelites to keep every one of the commandments they agreed to at Mount Sinai: "You shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. Observe them carefully."

How could Jesus then, as a good Jew, not observe so many of them? In the midst of His chapter-2 lawbreaking, He gives three reasons for his behavior. Two make sense to almost anyone; a third creates problems for almost everyone.

First, He's not the first Jew to break laws. King David, for instance, was well-known for not being limited by religious rules and regulations. Second, as God, Jesus can dictate His own path in life, free from any legal restrictions. Third, people come first. Only after Yahweh created humans did laws come into existence.

The last reason was so controversial in the early Church that when Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels a few years after Mark, they left it out. Who's to judge what's for people's good and what isn't? Such reasoning opens up a can of worms many prefer not to open.

Can of worms
Yet we presume the historical Jesus did open it. Not only as a good Jew, but also as a reformer of Judaism, He knew His covenant responsibilities didn't revolve around getting into heaven, but in experiencing as fulfilling a life as possible on this earth. An emphasis on keeping laws put the focus on the regulations and took it off the people those regulations were meant to help.

Jesus didn't need an advanced degree in theology to point out that some who faithfully followed the laws were actually being hurt, not helped by them. In many situations, the reason the laws had been created was being dead-ended.

We're grateful that the risen Jesus' disciples followed His example and also changed their focus. The author of the letter of James (James 1:17-18,21b,22,27) demonstrates that turnabout in his classic line, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their afflictions and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

If we're not caring for people, we're not following God's laws.

The upcoming second session of the Synod on the Family will certainly resurrect the first-century Christian issue of law-keeping and law-breaking. We can only pray and trust that Pope Francis and the synod participants will make Jesus' third reason their guide for either keeping or changing some of our most venerable rules and regulations.