Opening the Word: Conversion, obedience

Two fundamental errors are often made regarding the Christian life. The first is to focus almost exclusively on external actions to the detriment of interior transformation, spiritual growth or moral rectitude. One example is a constant advocacy of “social justice” that overlooks sexual immorality or abortion, as if the helping the poor somehow justifies a seriously defective approach to sexuality and life. 

The second is to focus almost entirely on one’s interior life, with little or no concern for public actions. This is quite evident in the “spiritual but not religious” posture so popular in American culture today, as if one’s spiritual experience takes precedence over revealed doctrine and public worship. 

Scripture provides a wealth of wisdom for recognizing and correcting these errors, as evidenced in today’s readings. The reading from Deuteronomy is the first of three addresses given by Moses when the people were close to entering the promised land. In it, God issued a solemn and binding promulgation of the Law to the people. This was a public and liturgical event, and it was the heart of the establishment of the covenant between God and his chosen people. By it, the Israelites were formed into a “great nation” through “the statutes and decrees.” This necessarily involved both a public declaration and an individual commitment, so the people could “live” and “enter in and take possession of the land.” 

When the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem challenged Jesus about the ritual washing of hands, they were not bringing up a point found in the written Law, but a matter of the “tradition of the elders,” or the oral law. The Mosaic Law did outline the purification to be observed by the priests (cf. Ex 30:17-21). But over time, an oral tradition had developed that sought to clarify, explain and otherwise provide legal interpretation of the Law. Originally meant to protect and further explain the Law, this “tradition of the elders” had become the goal rather than an aid. 

Rather than providing a legal argument, Jesus strongly and authoritatively denounced the hypocrisy of a hollow, external practice, drawing on the prophet Isaiah (see Is 29:13): “This people draws near with words only and honors me with their lips alone, though their hearts are far from me, and fear of me has become mere precept of human teaching.” In Catholic terms, the Pharisees had replaced capital “T” Tradition with small “t” traditions: “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”  

In other words, it was an issue of justice, as justice has to do with what is properly due to another. “The piety of justice,” wrote St. Ambrose in the fourth century, “is first exercised toward God; secondly, toward one’s country; next, toward parents; lastly, toward all.” 

With that in mind, it is worth noting that the ultimate goal of Catholic social doctrine is not the elimination of poverty, the destruction of evil social institutions or the building of an utopian society. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states, “With her social doctrine, the Church aims ‘at helping man on the path of salvation.’ This is her primary and sole purpose” (No. 69). Called to everlasting communion with God, we must seek interior conversion and external obedience. Or, as St. James states, we are to both hear the word and be “doers of the word.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of