September 8, 2012

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Purely Religious??

James 1:17-27
Mark 7: 1-8.14-15. 21-23

The book of James has gotten a bad rap throughout history.  Martin Luther called it the “strawy epistle” meaning apparently that it lacked substance.   But if you read this little book from beginning to end, you will find careful and comprehensive instructions about how to live a truly Christian life. 

James calls on us to care for the most vulnerable, to practice hospitality, to avoid favoritism, to refrain from actions based in anger, to be generous.  James calls on us to be doers of the Word, to practice our faith, to put our beliefs into action. 
We cannot merely read or hear the Word.  That is not enough. 
That is like looking at ourselves in a mirror, and then going away with no lasting image of who we are.  It is a fleeting experience that accomplishes nothing.  But looking into the mirror of the law – the Word – and then acting on what we see there, is the path to blessing. 

BUT – there is a big caveat to all this.  Sometimes we look into the mirror of the word and only see what we want to see.  We get all caught up in appearances, in how things look, and we forget what lies beyond the surface.  We spend our efforts on the rules and regulations and miss the intention of love that lies behind them.

This is not a new problem.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were experts in the law.  They knew every little jot and tittle. They were the keepers of tradition. And the tradition was important, no doubt about it.  Back in the wilderness, after Moses came down with the tablets of the law, it was the tradition that shaped the children of Israel into God’s holy people.  They were set apart from the pagans around them by everyday customs – what they ate, how they dressed, what kind of relationships they could have, how they worshiped.  Those traditions were important because they put the Law, the Word, into action.  They were guidelines for how to live. 

But somewhere along the way, the tradition – not the Word – became the focus.  Being religious came to mean keeping the rules.  The rules had built up over the years, layer by layer by layer, so they almost obscured the precious shining intention of the Law that was their foundation. 

And the religious leaders took on the job of enforcing the rules, which put them in conflict with Jesus.  Jesus was a rule-breaker!  But not just for the sake of being contrary or combative.  Jesus broke the rules anywhere the rules had become instruments of exclusion. 

Take this story about the rule for hand washing before eating.  It doesn’t seem to so bad, does it?  After all, we are supposed to do the same thing, for health reasons now, of course, not religious ones.  What could be the problem with requiring people to wash their hands?

Well, think about this part of the world in the first century.  A lot of the land was desert.  Water was scarce.  Getting enough water to drink and farm with took a lot of effort.  Poor people needed to use their precious water as carefully as possible, and pouring it out on their hands before a meal was an extravagance they could not afford. 

The Pharisees and the scribes, on the other hand, were among society’s elite.  They were relatively wealthy, supported by gifts to the synagogue.  They did not have to travel miles to draw water each day.  They did not have to worry about the lack of rain when the wheat was in the field.  They did not have to ensure that the thirsty could drink.  All that was taken care of for them.  They could afford to wash their hands, to be clean before they ate.

And this simple little rule, this tradition gone astray, had the effect of creating divisions.  The rich were able to keep themselves pure, according to the rules of religion, while the poor, even those who were deeply faithful, were considered ritually unclean and declared impure.

And Jesus stepped into this division between the leaders and the people, the rich and the poor, those who thought themselves pure and those who could not keep the burdensome rules.  He reminded them what the Word, the Law, was really about.  It was not about separating people; it was not about creating second-class citizens; it was not about a practice that had become divorced from its original intention.  In fact, Jesus said, it didn’t matter at all what happened on the outside.  Purity could only come from within. And washing one’s hands was no substitute for having a clean heart.

But what does this have to do with us – if anything?  We wash our hands because that is good hygiene, not because we think it makes us holy and pure.  In our church, our denomination, we don’t have all those rules about what to eat and what to wear and how to deal with leprosy. 

Maybe not.  But perhaps we have our own version of the ancient rules. We love our church and we depend on our own laws to help us know how to act.  Heaven knows, Presbyterians love their rules, their Book of Order!  We debate doctrine ad naseum. 

But when the rules become a means of creating divisions, of sorting the faithful into this group versus that group, of declaring some of us second-class, then like the ancient Pharisees, we have become purely religious, not religiously pure.  We have forgotten what God’s word really looks like. 

A clue to how we are supposed to be together in the church lies in the origin of the word religion.  It comes from a Latin word that means to bind up again.  Pure religion ties together what has been separated.  Pure religion connects us again into a whole body.  Pure religion is about unity, not division. 

If we are to be doers of the Word, then everything we do must lead to wholeness and unity and equality.  That is the source of our strength.  A single stick can be snapped, but a bundle tied together cannot be easily broken.  Together we can withstand the pressures of the world.  Together we are strong.   Together in our diversity we are the image of God, reflected in the mirror of the Word. 

So let us be doers of the Word, the precious shining Word, that binds us all together in God’s love. 

May it be so.  Amen.

© Martha C. Highsmith

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