This passage comes from the prologue to the Deuteronomic law. The prohibition to add or subtract anything was a regular feature of ancient legal codes (cf. the Code of Hammurabi, where, however, the prohibition comes toward the end, not at the beginning as here). The second paragraph underlines the great privilege Israel enjoys through the possession of the law.
The caption emphasizes the first paragraph, the prohibition to add or subtract from the law, and makes it clear that this reading was chosen to underline the distinction between the commandments of God and human traditions, which is the main point of the Gospel reading.
Responsorial Psalm: 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5
Almost the same selection of verses from this psalm is used on the sixteenth Sunday in series C. This is one of the so-called entry psalms, sung by pilgrims as they approached the temple. It describes the character of the pilgrim whom God will accept—a person of justice, sincerity, and integrity.
Fulfilling the legal code to the letter in a changed situation can result precisely in disobeying it. In that sense there must be change and adaptation. But it must be responsible change, change undertaken for the better observance of the law under changed conditions, not adaptation of the law to suit one’s own interests.
For the next five weeks the second reading will be from the so-called Letter of James. Traditionally this letter has been accepted as the work of James the brother of the Lord, though the author simply calls himself “a servant (slave) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas 1:1).
Critical opinion today is divided about the authorship and the date, Although some reputable scholars would defend its traditional authenticity and early date, is to be noted that there were considerable doubts about it even in the early Church. Probably it was originally a Hellenistic Jewish document containing twelve exhortations based on the names of the twelve patriarchs in Genesis 49 and slightly Christianized in the post-Pauline period by Hellenistic Jewish Christian teacher.
The letter enshrines a good deal of wisdom teaching and brings this to bear against the antinomians (Gnostics?) who in a later generation were appealing to a (wrongly interpreted) Paul. We would date the letter toward the end of the first century.
Today’s excerpt is from the second exhortation, supposedly based on the name Simeon (shamah—doers, not hearers only). The sentence beginning “Of his own will ... ” is a place where the author has Christianized the exhortation by inserting a reference to baptism. It is then that the “word,” that is, the gospel, is implanted. But it has to be constantly received anew and made the basis for Christian action.
The word for “religion” is equivalent to “cultus.” The true cultus. James insists, consists in ethical obedience. James does not intend to give an exhaustive description of such obedience but merely to illustrate it.
He does not mean to decry the importance of liturgy—after all, he mentions baptism and the hearing of the word—but he insists that the performance of these must lead to a life of moral obedience and cannot be a substitute for it (see the Old Testament prophets).
Like so many passages in the Gospel tradition, this pericope has a long and complicated history behind it. To begin with, the parenthesis [or dash] in Mark 7:3-4 is a note by the evangelist for the benefit of his Gentile readers, who were of course unfamiliar with Jewish customs.
Other features in the passage point to the Hellenistic Jewish Christian community before Mark. The quotation of Isaiah 29:13 follows the Septuagint, not the Massoretic text used by our Lord and the earliest Palestinian community. The quotation does not altogether fit the situation, which is not a matter of honoring with the lips.
Again, the distinction between the written law and the tradition does not adequately represent Jesus’ teaching on the law, which is critical even of the law itself when it is used as a cloak for disobedience. It represents the rationalistic approach of Hellenistic Judaism. The situation may well be an authentic memory about Jesus’ earthly activity, but the citation from Isaiah and the pronouncement of Mark 7:8 are probably from the later Hellenistic Jewish community.
The second pronouncement (Mk 7:14-16), which is addressed to the whole people, has, however, every mark of an authentic parable of Jesus. It could have been his response to precisely the type of situation indicated in the introduction to the pericope.
The disciples are accused of not washing before dinner, as the purity laws require. Jesus replies that it is not what people eat that defiles them; it is their inner purity, issuing in outward behavior, that matters.
Finally, the catalogue of vices (Mk 7:21-23) was a common teaching device in the catechesis, first of Hellenistic Jewish Christianity, and then of Gentile Christianity.