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A Year with Mark: October

A Year with Mark: October

What was the attitude of Jesus to the Jewish Law, and how does Mark present this? The basic position is given to us on the first Sunday of November. There Jesus repeats the most fundamental statement of Jewish Law and devotion, ‘And you shall love the Lord with all your heart, etc’. This is the statement of the love of God above all things. It is still recited in the Jewish daily prayer, still affixed to every observant Jewish doorpost as a reminder as you pass, an expression of total dedication. This Jesus completes with another quotation, ‘And you shall love your neighbour as yourself’, putting the similar statements on the same level, to the admiration of a Jewish lawyer. Devotion to the Jewish Law is not a chore but a delight, a joyful response to God’s gift of a pattern for life. The festival of the giving of the Law is celebrated with gratitude in dancing and merriment.

Ominously, however, the lawyer puts this double commandment of love above ‘any holocaust or sacrifice’. Jesus will show his agreement when he symbolically rubbishes the way the Temple-cult was conducted: it had lost its value. On other occasions he criticises the way the Law is applied, the oral tradition which contradicts its true purpose (7.9); ‘the Sabbath was made for man’ (2.27). With sovereign authority he sweeps away even the written Law which was being used to make divorce ridiculously easy (10.9). He has no qualms about touching unclean lepers, allowing himself to be touched by a woman rated unclean, associating with unclean tax-collectors, putting his hand on a dead man’s bier. Mark interprets a saying of his as annulling all laws of unclean food (7.19), a generalisation deliberately omitted by Matthew 15.17-18. Such a disagreement left the first generation of Christians unsure of the Lord’s decision; we may surmise that Matthew’s community retained the food laws. Whether or not to observe such laws remained a point of fierce disagreement in the first capital of Christianity at Antioch (Galatians 2.11-14).

In all his teaching it is clear that Jesus respects the Law and has a ‘feel’ for its application. Again and again he returns to its profoundest sense. On marriage (10.6) he returns to its sense of joining together man and woman in the creation-story. To the scribes he quotes the Fourth Commandment (7.10); to the Sadducees he draws out the meaning of the Law: the God ‘not of the dead but of the living’ (12.27); to the Herodians, ‘Give to God what belongs to God’ (12.17). The Law speaks to Jesus as God’s way for human beings. As in his healings, he asks only commitment to the way of God which we find in him.

by Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB

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