|El Greco -- St James|
- Song of Solomon 2:8-13 and Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 •
- Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 and Psalm 15 •
- James 1:17-27 •
- Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
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 as 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 or the vandalizing of graves, except with language that goes beyond customary moral concepts of right and wrong, and captures something of the revulsion that the idea of ‘defilement’ expresses?
At the same time, we know that human beings easily create merely conventional taboos. The violation of these is a ‘defilement’ that then licenses contempt and oppression against those who do not, or will not conform to them. It is this conventionalism 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.
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, and a close watch on our own sincerity.