First Lutheran Church
SPARRING WITH THE PHARISEES
After five weeks in the sixth chapter of John, absorbing what it means that Jesus is the Bread of life, we move to Mark, where things are getting ugly. Those who have been opposing Jesus on the periphery and plotting behind his back now openly attack him. Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem confront Jesus as he is leaving Galilee to preach in Gentile territory. Jesus takes two fundamental religious issues head on. One is defilement and the other is tradition, both of which are deeply rooted in Jewish cleanliness law and ritual. The Pharisees and scribes question the behavior of the disciples in terms of both defilement and tradition. Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?
I do not believe that the scribes and Pharisees were evil people. In their positions as Keepers of the Law for a people who lived under brutal military occupation, they had built a fence around the Law in order to preserve it. For the most part, they meant to honor God and protect the people in doing so. But as so often happens to people in power when they perceive a threat to the way of life they protect, they begin to guard the fence more rigorously than the people. The body of Jewish case law known as Midrash evolved over the centuries to interpret the Torah, or the Law of Moses. Its purpose is to understand the Torah which was the lifeblood of the people of Israel. But Midrash had become so intricately detailed and large that it was an impossible burden on the people. This is the interpretative fence that Jesus refers to as the tradition of the elders in verse 5. He sees the tradition of the elders opposing the Word of God. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.
The problem with human tradition is that we have a tendency, no matter how noble or well intended, to equate how we think and do things with the Will of God. All people do it in all areas of human life, political, religious, theological, ethical. Jesus teaches us to uphold the commandment of God. As the Great Teacher, his purpose is not to burden the people with more rules to follow but to free them with the Truth, so that they will have the ears to hear that the Kingdom of God is at hand. This is a difficult issue, one that has caused schisms and heresies within the church for two centuries, one that has put a congregation on every street corner.
Everyone thinks they are obedient to God, but it can be difficult to discern the differences between human precepts and divine will. This sparring between Jesus and the Pharisees addresses that difficulty and give us guidance. The criterion is fidelity to the intent of God’s commandment through God’s Word. God’s intentions are a mystery that human reason and desire can never unravel. All we know about God and God’s intention are revealed through the Word made flesh, which is dynamic and living, and attested to by the written Word. It takes a lifetime commitment of prayer and study to begin to discern the truth of the Word of God.
There is a difference between fact and truth, although the Word contains both. Scribes and Pharisees of all seasons tend to focus on facts, on those things which can be empirically defined and measured, and therefore, more easily controlled. That is not bad. All order in society depends upon such things. Nor does Jesus reject such order. He does not teach that all categories of clean and unclean should be abolished. He does, however, reinterpret this distinction through prophetic and ethical dimensions, rejecting ritualistic and legalistic approaches that cause more harm than good.
There is no sense in following rules just because they are there. All human purity is designed to point to the holiness of God. Rules which reinforce power structures and the status quo for their own sake at the expense of human life are that which Jesus challenges. These are the rules which reinforce the way things are always done, even though no one can remember the reasons why. Eating one’s food with clean hands is not about meeting some sense of human decorum. It is about offering thanks to God with a pure and clean heart, symbolized by the human act of washing ones hands. But when hand washing became more important than purity in heart it ceased to glorify God and became a rule that obliterated communion with God for its own sake.
My ministry here is the third ecumenical position I have had, which has given me a unique perspective on methods of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament is not found in the ritual but in our encounter with the Living Lord who meets the pure in heart at the table. There is nothing right or wrong about one style of taking communion over another. But when a particular style is viewed as the only proper way to do it, the method becomes important for its own sake and ceases to glorify God. We are called to the table to glorify Christ and experience the mystery of union with him and each other. We experience Christ’s sacramental grace not by our rituals but by his truth. Once we understand that, we can celebrate in all manner of creativity and joy because the ritual brings us into God’s presence.
Truth goes far beyond fact, into the mystical and prophetic presence of the Holy Spirit. God has an extreme bias in favor of the people over form of ritual. Look at verses 6-7, Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines’. By emphasizing that God’s will takes precedence over human tradition, Jesus calls us beyond our sacred cows which say but we’ve always done it this way to a renewed concern for Truth, pointing us to the glory of the Lord and the salvation of the people.
Not all Pharisees oppose Jesus and not all free spirits are his followers. But human nature wants to defend facts over truth because they provide us comfort when we feel threatened. Most of us go there from time to time, not because we are evil or have lost our faith, but because we are afraid of losing what is precious to us. Jesus calls us back to that which is truly precious, the intentions of God through his Living and Written Word. The challenge for you in this time of transition is to find the core of your faith, not in your past, not in the way you have always done things, but in the Living Christ who is the way and the truth and the life.
The Church of Jesus Christ does not exist to perpetuate its buildings or bureaucracies or rituals. It exists to glorify God and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. It can be hard to believe that under stress. It can be hard not to be Pharisees when things are uncertain. But prayer and faithful living will center us back into the presence of the Living God. It is what connects us to God’s truth, to whom we give the glory. Amen.