The Letter and the Spirit of the Law

First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Psalm: Psalm 15

Second Reading: James 1:17-27

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

"Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law ... Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart."

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let’s hear it for the Pharisees! Three cheers for the Pharisees! Who here is on Team Pharisee? We do not often side with the Pharisees. After all, we are on Team Jesus, and the Pharisees seem to do nothing but oppose Jesus. But perhaps we should look into the motivations for their actions. Surely, many of their objections to the teachings of Jesus are to preserve their position and their power. They also want to preserve “the way we have always done it.” Sound familiar? In the best light, the Scribes and Pharisees see themselves as keepers and protectors of the Law handed down to Moses. These are more than secular directives. The Law is a holy obligation, and observance of the Law is what draws us closer to God. The Law is intended for our own good, to keep order as God intends, and to ensure care for one another as God cares for humanity.

When it comes down to it, we really like rules and laws. As much as we tend to create chaos and drama in our lives, we rely on rules and laws to provide a sense of order so we can function. Though we don't always follow them, when driving, rules of the road help keep us safe on the way to our destination. We maintain a healthy respect for the law of the jungle. We understand predators and prey are part of the laws of nature. The law of gravity comes in handy. Though it seems to drag us down as we grow older, we must be grateful that it keeps our feet planted on the earth, our island home. Many laws help us understand what to expect in the world, so we can take the next faithful step with hope, and without fear.

Then there are other laws, the laws we question. Why must we go 35 miles per hour on that stretch of wide open, four-lane highway? Why may the state of Georgia operate a lottery, but gambling is illegal? In the city of Acworth, all citizens are required to own a rake. In Columbus, barber shops may not open on Sundays. In Quitman, Georgia, it is illegal for a chicken to cross the road. I'm not sure how one informs a chicken of its rights or how a chicken might be prosecuted, but I imagine proper punishment involves breading and a deep fryer. Other laws more deeply engage our moral and religious sensibilities ... prayer in schools, the right to life and a woman's right to choose, how we treat immigrants and strangers in our land, humane punishment and the death penalty. In these cases, and many others, we question both the laws and the legislators, the rules and the rule makers. As a faith community, we apply a particular moral compass that is often in tension with the laws made and enforced by people.

In today’s gospel, there is yet another questioning of the Law. The scribes and Pharisees are questioning Jesus. Why don't your people wash their hands before they eat? Fair question. I'm sure most of us when we were younger heard a parent say, "Wash your hands before dinner." In public restrooms there is usually a sign posted, “Employees must wash hands before returning to work.” Somewhere along the way, we all learned the habits of good hygiene and understand why it is a good idea to wash hands before we eat. The Israelites may not have had a clear understanding of avoiding germs and disease, but they had their own reason why. Rooted in Jewish law was the idea of ritual cleanliness. Jesus' response is almost expected. It was common for prophets to condemn the hypocrisy of empty ritual and worship. Jesus provides an exclamation point with the statement, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."

Omitted from our selection from Mark today, Jesus gives the example of the commandment "Honor your father and mother." It had become a common practice for Jews to withhold support of aging parents, claiming their excess resources were dedicated and offered to God. They missed the point of taking care of people in need, instead claiming religious piety and self righteousness under the law. Jesus admonished his accusers, "you do many things like this."

Then Jesus goes further, summoning the crowds to him again, so that all may hear. In this teaching moment, Jesus employs humor, perhaps to shock his detractors. Jesus states, "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."

In text omitted from our reading, the disciples ask Jesus to tell him what this means. Most jokes lose a little bit of their punch when explained. In this case, the punch is even more direct. Jesus explains, "Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” If we were all 4th graders, we would let loose a collective giggle. In what could be described as potty humor, Jesus drives the point in this lesson. It is the bad things that come out of us that defile. Thus Jesus declares all foods clean. They all end up the same, and in the same place. However, there is more than a crude joke in this lesson. The gospel is pointing us to what is important in our spiritual diet. The list of vices that defile all come from the heart. Adultery, theft, and murder are outward and visible. But even those vices that only poison our hearts within ... envy, pride, and folly ... have the power to defile. In considering these, perhaps we should revisit the Collect for Purity. As we prepare ourselves for worship, we pray for God to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts ... because all the vices listed have the potential to defile. God knows us intimately, and invites us to an honest relationship ... after all "To God all hearts are open, all desires known, and from God no secrets are hid."

It is interesting to note what Jesus does not say. He does not condemn the scribes and Pharisees beliefs or their important role in 1st Century Judaism. Jesus never renounces the law. Yet as a deeply religious Jew, he turns the tables on the scribes and Pharisees in the prophetic tradition of denouncing selfish interests. He does not denounce all religious leaders or all of Judaism, but asserts their hearts are far from God. Likewise, we cannot condemn all laws, whole groups of people, or religious traditions lest we be guilty of the same hardness of heart Jesus urges us to avoid.

Jesus' words remind us that the growth in our capacity to love is directly related to an increased awareness of the hidden intentions of our hearts. To live by God's word of truth means being meek rather than angry, for "anger does not produce God's righteousness." Living by God’s word means reversing the estimation of wealth and poverty, since the poor are exalted by God and the rich are humbled. It means being driven not by evil desires, but by the search for the wisdom that comes from God. Most paradoxically, it means counting trials completely as joy, an attitude possible only to those who believe in a God who gives the crown of life to those who endure such trials through their love of God. These contrasts are between the sham and self-deceived religiosity of speech and appearance, and authentic religion "pure and undefined before God," expressed by care for the world's needy. God's grace and law as revealed through scripture and Jesus Christ is our source and guide for life.

James explains our lives are not lived as an individual but as a community of faith. It is a breathtaking assertion that human existence is not located in a closed system of competition, but in an open system ordered by and to a God who gives gifts to humanity. The purpose of the letter and the spirit of the Law is to reconcile us to God and each other. This is why the command to pray, and to pray together, is fundamental, for prayer is itself an opening to the understanding of reality as one drenched with grace, given to all by God, the giver of every perfect gift.

How are we holding on to the words, the text of the Law, rather than the life of the Law? Are we holding up the Law for our own benefit, or to maintain “the way we have always done things?” Perhaps what we think is important is merely what will end up in the sewer ... an error in the bulletin, a child crying through the sermon, someone didn't bow, or kneel, or cross themselves at the right time. We focus on rules, often the rules of humanity, that tell us how it ought to be. Perhaps we should focus on how God sees us and how God sees others. Perhaps we should discern how God would have us respond to the world.

The challenge of the gospel is to obey God's law with body, mind, and spirit. It would, in fact, be much easier to follow any number of ritual practices than to transform our hearts. If only righteousness was as simple as washing hands.

Jesus reinterprets the law as God intends, encourages the law to be written on our hearts, and expects the law to be taken seriously. The charge to take care of widows and orphans, and all those in the lowest places in society is nothing new, but the example of Jesus demonstrates that it is not just a suggestion or an option. God really means it.

We are invited into God's grace and law. We are invited into relationship with God and each other. We are invited to share God's gifts with others. We are invited into this pure and undefiled religion. We are invited to reflect the source of life, light, and goodness, and to proclaim the Good News to others. Amen.

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