Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law -- Marc Chagall
It is relatively rarely in the Lectionary that the connection between the Epistle and the Gospel is quite so clear as it is on this Sunday. The subject of both is the concept of ‘defilement’, what it is and why it matters. ‘Defilement’ is not a term we use easily nowadays. Partly this is a result of the fact that we live in a much less religious world than previous generations did. Yet something like this concept is hard to dispense with. How are we to capture the particularly loathsome nature of child pornography, the vandalizing of graves, or the willful corruption of the innocent, except with language that goes beyond customary moral concepts of 'good' and 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong'?  If we are to express adequately the profound revulsion and rejection that talk of ‘defilement’ aims to reflect, we need deeper concepts -- 'sacred' and 'profane'  -- that are rooted in God's  absolute commandments, such as the passage from Deuteronomy invokes.

The Pure Spirit -- Jacques Herold
At the same time, we know that human beings easily confuse divine commandments with merely conventional taboos, which they then cloak in terms like these. And that has itself been the source of great evil, when the 'violation' of these conventions is taken to license contempt and oppression against those who do not, or will not conform to them. It is this conventional notion of 'defilement' that Jesus condemns in this week’s Gospel passage. Such people, he says, treat ‘human precepts’ as though they were fundamental ‘doctrines’, and thereby ‘abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’. They venerate mere codes of action, when what matters is the heart and spirit from which our actions spring and to which they ought to be connected.

In the Epistle, James extends the thought to make us more circumspect in this regard. Moral outrage is simply anger; it ‘does not produce God’s righteousness’. Religion ‘pure and undefiled’ requires ‘meekness’  -- which is to say humility in our judgment of others, a close watch on our own sincerity, and more circumspection in what we declare to be divine law.

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