If last week’s readings helped us to reflect on the choices we make, this week’s might help us think about sticking to them. If you’ve ever started a diet, drawn up a new regime for keeping fit or living more simply, promised to give up smoking, decided to cut down on alcohol, come out of a Speed Awareness Course determined to observe the speed limit or resolved to be more patient with people who annoy you, you’ll know how hard it is to keep it up beyond the first few days, even if you last that long. Our capacity for backsliding, making excuses, blaming anyone but ourselves and engaging in all sorts of self-deception is almost endless.
That’s why Moses insists that the people should remember every day the laws and customs he has taught them, which set them apart from the people around them. He describes the Law as a great gift from God which demonstrates their wisdom and understanding to all the people who don’t have a God who is so near to them. He knows that good habits, like bad ones, are established by constant repetition and monitoring: in the next line after this passage ends he says ’Take care, watch yourselves, don’t forget’.
The Letter of James underlines the same point: it’s actions, not words, that count. Doing what the Word says and not just listening and deceiving ourselves. Pure religion is not just saying prayers and attending services: it is looking after those in need and not following the way of the world. We can do this because God has given us, as a free gift, the impulse to do good.
In the Gospel, Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, the ways in which they follow the letter of the Law but not its spirit. They are criticising his followers for not washing their hands in the approved way before eating, but at the same time they are using their power and influence to take food out of the mouths of the poor. They are paying lip-service to God but their heart is not in it. Jesus challenges their way of judging people: what matters is not whether we keep the letter of the Law but how we treat our neighbours, especially those who are weak and vulnerable. We need to nurture the God-given goodness in our hearts and let that direct our actions.