Reading 1: Deuteronomy: 4:1-2, 6-8
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 15:2-5
Reading 2: James: 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Gospel: Mark: 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The power of words
Children sing-song the ditty: ‘Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never hurt you.’ How wrong this little claim really is! Broken bones will mend, but we do not always recover from cruel words. In fact, the words of others can sometimes prevent us from becoming the best we might be. Though this may be particularly the case when we are vulnerable because of youth or inexperience, it can be true at any or all periods of life. At times of anger or insensitivity, we might use words as weapons against others. We might slander them, or reveal a truth that could ruin their reputation. However, the opposite can be true as well. There are words that are healing and encouraging. Another’s words ‘You’re not alone; I’m here’ can do wonders when we feel bereft of support. Words of affection or love strengthen and transform us. The simple phrase ‘I love you’ can turn life from black and white to technicolor. There is definitely power in words.
In the Jewish tradition, the ten commandments frequently referred to as the ‘ten words,’ have power as well. Unfortunately, many of us today view these words as restrictions on life. The Israelites certainly did not. They believed that these words, delivered to them through Moses at the time of the making of the covenant, were the words of God. They were powerful because they expressed God’s will for them. They viewed the ten commandments as helpful guides for living lives of wisdom and truth, generosity and social harmony. They cherished these words because they believed that following them was the way they would live out their covenant relationship with God. If we look carefully at these ordinances, we will see that they sketch a picture of a God who is committed to justice. The God behind this set of laws requires that people both show the proper reverence toward God and live honorably in society, respecting each other’s person and property. Understood in this way, we can see why they considered the ten commandments words of life. Finally, the life that they would live as they followed these counsels would be a witness to the other nations: “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law?”
The author of the Letter of James uses an agricultural image to speak about the power of the word, specifically the word of truth. He no doubt is referring to the word of the gospel, the word that has been planted in us, the word through which we are reborn in baptism. He insists that it is not enough to hear that word and claim allegiance to it. It must also bring forth fruit; that word must be allowed to transform our lives, for this is the way that we will live out our covenant with God. Once again we see that the word is not hollow. It is pregnant with life, and when it takes root and blossoms in the lives of believers, it will give witness to the goodness and power of God. The psalm response gives us a glimpse of such a way of living. God’s words will bring forth blamelessness and justice, thoughtfulness and honesty in dealing with others. These are certainly words of truth.
There are times when strict adherence to the law can also produce the opposite of what it was intended to effect. Rather than enhance human life and direct us to God, rigid conformity can restrict life and result in smug self-satisfaction. In the gospel story, Jesus chides those who demand unyielding observance of simple customs that grew up in an attempt to safeguard the law but which were now considered as important as the law itself. Because he makes exceptions when the good of others seems to call for them, Jesus is accused of serious violation of God’s law. Though he does at times set the law aside, he nonetheless respects it. He argues that the ‘ten words’ are meant to be guides, not shackles, and he insists that adherence out of an empty sense of duty is not enough. They may criticize what they consider his lack of obedience to the law, but he criticizes their hollow observance of it.
The passage from Isaiah that Jesus quotes sums up his perspective regarding the words of the law: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Nowhere does Jesus suggest that the practice of religion is unimportant. Rather, he insists that external practice, whether it is of worship or of teaching, must be informed by the right dispositions of the heart. It is these dispositions that generate true devotion. It is these dispositions that determine whether or not we are truly religious or simply observant. Furthermore, it is out of these dispositions that our words spring, for as Jesus remarks, what defiles does not come from outside of us, but from deep within us. Commitment to the ten commandments must spring from the heart. Only then will they be words of genuine truth and life.
Sr. Dianne Bergant, CSA
Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Old Testament Studies