Psalm 136 is a song of praise to God. The repeated refrain “his mercy endures forever” is both a memory of the mighty works described in each verse, as well as a promise of continued mercy into the future forever. The work of creation is praised in the Psalm along with God’s mercy and continuing love through the events of history. These repeated words of the refrain echo through the other readings.
The Genesis story stresses family commitment and recalls God’s promise to Israel. Joseph’s promise to Jacob is an example of honoring a parent’s wishes and is an image of God’s love for us. The story also prefigures the commandment of filial honor to be revealed in the wilderness. In the reading from Mark, history (as religious tradition) is given a different context. Jesus is often critical of the rigid practices of his Jewish contemporaries, especially when, as here, religious practice has become an excuse for selfishness. We learn of a peculiar Jewish religious law and hear Jesus calling out the hypocrites who practice outward religion for personal gain. They have forgotten the greater message of the commandment to honor father and mother, in favor of a self-serving false gift to the temple. Jesus then sharpens and clarifies his message by explaining that sin (uncleanness) comes from within a person; external practice will not cleanse an impure heart. Paul recalls Israel’s history for the Corinthians. Israel’s time in the wilderness was a time of temptation. He tells the Corinthians that even with temptations all around, a pure heart will convey the inner strength to resist. Paul thus reinforces Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel reading by stressing the strength found in a pure heart.
History can be a teacher and example. Tradition can be enlightening or a convenient mental straitjacket. We know that God’s mercy endures outside history, throughout eternity. We know that sin and salvation live in the heart.
— Charles Lancaster