Today gives us a tough question: How are we to keep God’s commands and simultaneously not be driven by rules? Jesus answers the religious leaders’ question about defilement by saying “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” What place, then, do commandments have in our lives?
The entire passage, Mark 7:1–23, shows that for Jesus there are ethical issues deeper than the keeping of the letter of the law. Neither the rules about handwashing nor the rules for corban (gifts designated for the temple) absolve Christians of their obligation for candor, charity, love of family.
. . . The distinction here, as in James, is between “lip service” and “hear service.”
. . . A key to the significance of the passage in the first century is the end of Mark 8:19. . . [in which Jesus] “declared all foods clean.” Mark is insisting that Christians need not keep a kosher table in order to be Christian, and he is therefore clearing the way for gentiles to be Christian without first being Jewish. . . .
Jesus' claim in this passage is consistent with his reading of the law as we find it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7). It is not only what we do that defiles us, it is our “evil intentions” (7:21).
The larger claim to which the whole passage points is that it isn't what we eat or drink that defiles us but what we say and do and intend. It's not intake but output that does us in. James, who is especially concerned about the hurtful words we speak, would simply say, Amen. – David Bartlett
This book, the “second law,” adds to our understanding of what the gospel means for us today.
One of the great themes of Deuteronomy is continuity. . . and the whole point of the book is to reclaim and reaffirm the law for its own time. Somewhat ironically the deuteronomist insists on the unchanging law as a premise for underlining his own more contemporary interpretations. In this sense the whole book reflects the tension or dialectic at the heart of any scriptural faith—the tension between cherished tradition and necessary application.
. . . [T]his passage makes two claims about keeping the law. First, it is the keeping of the law that separates Israel from the world around it. . . (4:6). Second, the law is best kept by being passed on. . . . (4:9). – David Bartlett
A primary honoring of God’s commands, then, has to do with teaching them, keeping them at the heart of the faithful community, recognizing that adherence to the law is an ongoing discernment.
To make even more complex the issue of law-abiding, commandment-keeping, the epistle of James insists on both living out one’s faith in action and doing so with freedom.
Unlike Paul's letters, the Epistle of James does not seem to present a complex thematic outline but rather is a series of paragraphs instructing Christians in different aspects of the obedient life. James' great theme is that faith must be manifest through works, and he emphasizes that in this passage with the command: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers…” (22).
. . . Strikingly, the law James upholds is “the law of liberty” (25) and he seems at least implicitly to be arguing . . . that real liberty is liberty from the law. For James obedience is freedom.
Verses 26–27 are a splendid example of practical Christianity. (1) Bridle your tongue—that is, avoid both gossip and slander. (2) Care for widows and orphans. (3) Don't let the outside world set the standards for your behavior. This last claim reminds us of Deuteronomy: Let the world admire your behavior, not dictate that behavior. – David Bartlett
David Bartlett, an ordained American Baptist minister, is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.
Homily Service 39, no. 10 (2006): 3-13.