Scripture Reflections, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021

August 29, 2021 – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15:2-5; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This Sunday’s readings describe the unparalleled gift of God’s Law, and exhort us to live faithfully according to its wisdom. (Cf. Deuteronomy 4:1,6; James 1:18,21b-22) “For,” Moses posits, “what great nation has statutes and ordinances that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:8)

How to live in accord with God’s Law is a perennially relevant question, and the readings quite clearly caution us not to add or subtract from God’s Law as we strive to do so. (Cf. Deuteronomy 4:2; Mark 7:7) So how is it that the Church rejects the doctrine of sola scriptura, which posits that the Bible alone is the only infallible source of authority for Christian faith and practice? How is it that she robustly defends, instead, the doctrine that Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are, respectively, the written and unwritten expressions of God’s revelation that together flow “from the same divine well-spring” and “form one sacred deposit of the word of God committed to the Church”? (Dei Verbum, 9, 10)

And how can a Church that teaches this at the same time unironically proclaim Christ’s rebuke against the Pharisees in this Sunday’s Gospel? “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.” (Mark 7:6-7)

An answer to this seeming contradiction lies in Christ’s very next line and in the example he then provides. He says, “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition,” (Mark 7:8) and then provides the example of people dedicating their money to God in support of the Temple while simultaneously neglecting the needs of their own mothers and fathers. (Cf. Mark 7:9-13)

Christ’s concern here is not extra-Scriptural traditions in general, but rather, quite specifically, human traditions, taught and encouraged by the Pharisees, that simultaneously disregarded the commandments revealed by God, such as his commandment given to Moses on Mt. Sinai to “honor your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16) Christ’s concern is less with the cleaning of kettles and beds than with their fixation on cleaning kettles and beds to the detriment of their providing for the needy and purifying their own hearts of sin. (Cf. Mark 7:4,6; James 1:27)

Christ had just manifested his divine power by multiplying the loaves and the fishes to feed a hungering crowd (Mark 6:30-44), and all the Pharisees could do in response was to point out how the disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating such miraculously provided meals. (Cf. Mark 7:2, 5) Their malice, envy, blasphemy, arrogance and folly in this all made it on the list of what Christ goes on to rebuke. (Cf. Mark 7:22)

Tradition is not the problem. The problem is their hearts. In fact, Sacred Tradition is an entirely biblical concept. In Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians, for example, he mentions the equal authority of both his written (Scripture) and unwritten (Tradition) teachings. “Therefore, brothers,” he writes, “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) And the Book of Acts describes how, “As (Paul and Timothy) traveled from city to city, they handed on to the people for observance the decisions reached by the apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem.” (Acts 16:4; and cf., Acts 15:1-32)

Very early on, the Church recognized that divine revelation is not self-interpreting. “How can I (understand what I am reading), unless someone instructs me,” the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip in Acts 8:31. Therefore, “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Dei Verbum 10)

Far from a reality that disregards or contradicts the infallible teaching provided by Scripture, then, the Church’s apostolic Tradition stands together with it to infallibly interpret and unpack its meaning in every age. This charism is granted to the Church’s teaching office, or “Magisterium,” as it is called, referring to the successors of the apostles called bishops, united with the successor of Peter called the pope, the bishop of Rome. (Cf. Matthew 16:18-19; 28:18-20; Acts 2:42; 1 Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 2:19-22) And it is granted by Christ through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for the exact purpose of helping God’s faithful in every age to give their hearts completely to God in accord with his revelation.

“It is clear, therefore, that Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” (Dei Verbum 10; cf. Veritatis Splendor 110)