Deut 4:1-8, Mk 7:1-23, James 1:17-27
What would you say if someone asked you if you were wiser than the people in society around you? Or, more precisely, rather than claiming to be personally wiser: would you say that you follow a wisdom that is wiser than the secular society around us?
Obviously, this is a fairly bold claim, what many would say is an arrogant claim, but the real issue is not whether such a claim is arrogant or bold but whether it is simply true. And, our Scripture readings today very directly refer to such a claim.
In the book of Deuteronomy we heard Moses challenge the people to compare their "laws and customs", the laws and customs that had been given to them by God, to compare the wisdom of this way of life with that of the pagan cultures around them. As Moses put it, "no other people is as wise and prudent as THIS great nation”. This wisdom, of course, not being their own invention, but having been revealed to them by God. Now, as Christians, we are of the heirs of the moral life revealed by God to His Chosen People to the Jews: the Lord Jesus Christ, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, fulfilled and completed the revealing of that way of life by superseding the regulations of the Old Temple while affirming the moral code in the 10 Commandments and others that live it out. This is the great wisdom that we Christians are called to follow.
In the gospel, we heard Jesus denounce the Pharisees. And he denounced them for a very specific offence: they were ranking "human traditions" above the commandments of God. After all, Moses had warned, “add nothing”, “take nothing”. While you and I may not sprinkle ourselves and we return from the marketplace, and may not wash our arms precisely up to the elbow before eating, we too run the risk of placing the "human traditions" of the society around us above the way of life revealed to us by God. Do we adhere to “human tradition” of comfort and gluttony of modern living or do we adhere to the self-denial fasting we seen the saints? Do we adhere to a "human tradition" where an evening without television is almost unthinkable? Do we judge the sexual impurity of what we see on our television screens according to the “human traditions” of 21st-century Britain or do we judge them according to the standard of Christ? Let us not ignore the fact that the list of vices Christ referred to as coming out of man's heart, that list started with "fornication". Do we adhere to a "human tradition" that gives excessive concern to the preservation of a certain image of a middle-class lifestyle?
To be a Christian, just like being a Jew before us, means to live according to different traditions to those in the non-Christian society around us. And it means remembering, as we heard in the letter from St James, that what we have received is not a mere "human" wisdom, but has come "from above", it has been revealed to us by God, in the person of Jesus Christ. And it is precisely because it is "from above" that we need to acknowledge that it is a greater wisdom than that of the secular society around us.
And if we use the test that Moses offered to compare the Christian way of life without the world around us, we should not hesitate to say that it is more "wise". Family stability is best aided by the sexual and personal conduct taught by Christians. Society stability is best aided by being founded on the foundation of stable families. Personal stability is best aided by acknowledging that there is a God above us, that we need to exercise self-control, and we need to put aside love of self in order to love our neighbour and to love God.
So, it is an arrogant claim to Christians to claim to follow a greater wisdom than that of the society around us? No. While it is a bold claim, if Christ is who He says He is, if he is truly God, truly the long-awaited Messiah, then his wisdom must indeed be wiser than the wisdom of this passing Age. The continual challenge to us as Christians is to endeavour to live out the wisdom that we have received, because if we do not live it out then people will not say that Christians as Moses said of the Jewish people of old, “no other people is as wise and prudent as THIS great nation”.