The Danger of Bare Ritual
Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Sundays
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “ ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:1–8 , 14-15, 21–23)
Ever since Sunday School the Pharisees have been the bogey men of the Gospel. When they are mentioned we are ready to boo. It’s never good news, and it’s clear Jesus wasn’t impressed, but why would this be the case? After all they had a complete devotion to God, and sought to live their lives with a full commitment to the commandments of God. Surely this it to be commended. Their respect for the Law, and commitment to practices such as ritual washing are things we would expect to earn praise. In fact, you have to admit that Jesus’s own disciples do not match up to their high standards. “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”, they ask.
The problem is this: none of these rules are actually in the Bible. There was a huge superstructure of tradition built on the slimmest of foundations. Take the washings as an example. Within the Old Testament Law it was only the priests who had to perform a ritual washing, and then only in certain circumstances not before every meal. The ‘Tradition of the Elders’ was just that: a tradition. But like many traditions is began with good intentions.
The Pharisees were certain that God would bless Israel once again if the Jews entirely kept his law. All too aware that they were under Roman occupation, they understood this as judgment. Keep the Law, and the judgment will lift. In order to ensure that the Law was not broken by accident, they devised a number of practices - the traditions. To ensure that you didn’t accidentally work on the Sabbath, regulations were devised as to what exactly was work. So it was that walking more than a mile was ruled out of order. The focus shifted from the Laws which God gave onto the regulations which the Elders had devised. The great irony in all of this was that God himself got rather lost in the mix.
Lest we think that this simply a problem of antiquity, we would do well to realise that we all have our traditions. Customs of the church, things originally devised to help people with their faith, become rigid. Ideas become rules, and the modern church can become as rule bound as the traditionally minded. If we are not careful, we write our own books of the Bible, certain patterns and practices we must all follow to earn God’s blessing.
The great tragedy in all of this is that faith gets lost. Rather than a living dependance of God, a list of rules becomes the norm. The right things are said, sung and done but the point is lost. Christianity become rigid and moribund, or simply a morality code. Worse, the institution of the church displaces God from the centre of things.
This is not to say that all tradition is wrong, but there is great danger when it ceases to be an aid to relating to God, and becomes the goal itself.
So what to do? Jesus points to core issue: the heart. In the end externals don’t really matter, what matters is the state of your heart. Christianity is lived from the inside out, and what renders us clean or unclean is what comes the heart. The business of the faith is the renovation of the human heart, reconnecting us to God. Knowledge of the Bible is one thing, having the Bible reveal to us the living God is another. Christianity is relating to God, not the keeping of rules. An internal affair, not external regulations.
The problem with the Pharisees was that their faith had become an external matter. Rules had supplanted relating to God. Earning God’s favour had replaced revelling in the grace of a forgiving God. Christianity is a matter of the heart.
So what might we do about all of this? Move from rule to relationship. When you read the Bible, don’t simply read for information. Pray before you read. Ask yourself: what does this tell me about God? How should this change the way I think and act? How might I respond? And when you pray, you are not simply leaving a to-do list on a divine answerphone. Leave space in your prayers. Allow God to communicate. Converse with God rather than speak at him. In other words, treat God as a person and not a thing.
Christianity is a living faith in the living God. Don’t smother it with bare rituals.