There’s an image that I would like to use as a framework for this article.
Imagine the moral life as a garden, an oasis surrounded by a wasteland. We, the persons in that garden, have everything that will make us truly happy, yet we all have this disordered desire to go out into the wasteland. So God set up a fence around the garden, a clear barrier between life and death so that we would be free to enjoy the whole garden without the fear of wandering into the wasteland. However, at times these disordered desires are so strong that we can’t even get close to the fence. So using our consciences, and with the virtue of prudence, we build ourselves little man-made fences within the garden to help prevent us from getting too close to the edge (like the recovering alcoholic who refuses to hang out with his friends at a bar because he knows the temptation to drink will be too strong).
So let’s take a look at last Sunday’s readings in light of this image. In the first reading, Moses is giving his great exhortation to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land and he is urging them to follow God’s commands and stay faithful to the covenant. In the midst of this speech Moses warns the people saying:
“In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it” (Deut 4:2).
In other words, don’t lie about that perimeter fence. Don’t tell people that the fence is further out so that they can live in the wasteland and don’t pretend that our little man-made fences are God’s fence and thus restrict other people’s access to part of the garden.
In the Gospel that day Jesus reiterates the second part of that warning is his exhortation against the Pharisees. He quotes Isaiah saying:
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts” (Mark 7:6-7).
Jesus condemns those who teach as doctrines merely human precepts. Those who pretend some man-made fence is God’s great fence. Those who present opinion as Revealed Truth. This, I would argue, is an abuse of man’s freedom and a violation of man’s dignity.