This week, the Faith in Real Life groups discussed the place of traditions in our lives. In this passage from Mark’s gospel, the Pharisees challenge Jesus on his loyalty to the Jewish traditions and faith. In his response, Jesus elevates the spirit of the law over the letter of the law, and shows through his actions that the law is fulfilled in service to others.
MARK 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Who is saint and who is sinner? What goes into the making of each? Who gets to decide? We want to make sure we belong to God, we want to do right—or at least less wrong. So we, like the scribes and the Pharisees spend considerable time parsing scripture and creating traditions intended to honor God. Unfortunately, such efforts are both good news and bad news. When these traditions help us to become more God conscious, they feed our souls but when they becomes measures of piety, these same traditions become idolatrous and sinful.
Jesus makes this distinction unmistakably clear in this confrontation with the scribes and the Pharisees. The question to Jesus (“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” ) is not for information, it is designed to entrap Jesus, to expose his lack of fealty to the Jewish faith and in so doing, to discredit him. In turn, Jesus uses Isaiah to challenge conventional understanding of scripture as well as deeply embedded religious tradition. He looked beyond convention, looked beyond tradition and looked beyond scripture to call the scribes and Pharisees into account. Jesus did not question the validity of the law nor the importance of tradition. He did however expect the scribes and Pharisees (and us) to never lose sight of the truth that scripture, the law and the traditions were written in the service of love. For Jesus, the spirit of the law always took precedence over the letter of the law.
Jesus consistently preached that it was unconscionable to allow suffering in the name of honoring God. Human need came first. God’s intention for us is to be loved and to be loving. Anything we do that interferes with God’s intention for us runs contrary to God’s will. Jesus broke Sabbath law but he honored the spirit of the law. He healed on the sabbath, helped animals out of ditches and in the Sermon on the Mount claims his authority over even the ten commandments (“You have heard it said… but I say unto you…”). Honoring the spirit of the law, however, is no easy task. As soon as we make interpretive exceptions, we enter a quagmire of uncertainty. As it turns out, it is hard enough to figure out how to honor the Sabbath much less what is loving in any particular situation.
To put it more provocatively, we cannot rely on tradition or scripture to define what is always right or wrong. We can have guideposts. We can have parameters for discussion but in particular situations, there will be uncertainty. No wonder the scribes and Pharisees were angry with Jesus. Not only was he challenging their authority as arbiters of God’s will, he was shaking the foundations and traditions of faith. If we can’t determine right or wrong, where can we stand? But it is our very desire to define and ‘know’ right and wrong that has gotten us into trouble for centuries.
I would like to think that our traditions originated in a desire to honor God—or in the words of a young rabbi—originated in a desire to increase our God consciousness. God consciousness evokes humility and gratitude. God consciousness can be as simple as dressing up for church or as complex as building soaring cathedrals. Both have a desire to show respect and deference to the God beyond all Gods. But when people are judged because they don’t dress appropriately or when a church spends more on maintenance than it does on social outreach, the root of the tradition gets lost. Likewise, when we try to discuss social issues and we use dueling scripture to make our point, we may as well be Pharisees who forgot why the tradition of hand washing was created in the first place. Self righteousness and self justification replace humility and gratitude.
We would do well to ask ourselves what are the conventions we hold onto that have lost their connection to loving. Even our use of scripture can fall into this category. When we weaponize the words of love to prove other people wrong—or to prove we are right, that is not ok. Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites for that very reason. He does not allow them the presumption that they honor God when they are judging others.
Jesus presses his point further by making it clear that purity before God can never be something we can attain by our righteousness or obedience. Such a belief is self serving. Originally, ritual hand washing expressed a desire to come before God with clean hands and a pure heart. It was an act of humility which preceded prayer. But it is God who must create a clean heart within us. It is not something we can do ourselves. It is God alone who can embrace our whole being and ‘make us pure.’ To imagine that we have a say in the matter is to fail to acknowledge the depth and breadth of our sinfulness as well as the depth and breadth of God’s love.
Jesus took our sinfulness absolutely seriously and he points that out in the next section of our scripture. Our sinfulness emerges from the deepest part of us and cannot be ritually purified. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…” In our century, we tend to identify the heart with feelings, but the heart in the first century represented the source of rationality and will. Jesus recognized that it is fundamental to humankind to preserve self. We are evolutionarily hard wired to be self serving. No amount of piety, tradition or obedience can remove that from our DNA.
When we are self serving the whole list of sins—fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly—follow. We turn away from God and a turn toward ourselves for our worth and meaning. When we define ourselves by what we have or what we accomplish, we are willing to advance ourselves at the expense of others. And the claim to piety (or at least not being as bad as other people) comes from the same place as this list of more conventional sins. It is just another attempt to allow us to think we are better that other people. When comparative thinking turns differences between us into judgments about us, we use our status instead of our relationship with God to determine our worth. We all use such thinking. We are all sinners and unless we realize that our sinfulness, our evil intentions, come from within and are part of our very being, we will have trouble seeing, much less accepting the depth of God’s grace.
At this point in the discussion, both FIRL groups raised the same question. Why did God create us as he did? Why hard wire this propensity to sin into our being? That question is a good one but it belongs to another blog. More to the point for this blog is the discomfort we feel when we face who we are. We reflexively connect our sinfulness with unacceptability. We fear being known and will do almost anything to hide or make ourselves more acceptable.
Following Jesus requires that our rituals and traditions must be in the service of love. Jesus does not mince words and reminds us that none of us are better than another. We are all God’s children. To use religion to justify separating people or to claim a righteousness we do not have. Such a claim is sinful and distrusts God’s infinite capacity to love us. It is frightening, if not terrifying to trust God with our whole selves—evil intentions included. But it is the doorway to grace.
These are the times to remember Jesus’ promises. He did not come to condemn the world. He came to reconcile our sinful selves to himself. That is our hope and our salvation.
Remember we are all sinners. And remember Jesus came into this world to save sinners. Let it be so.