Proper 17

St Andrew’s, EdwardsvilleDeuteronomy 4:1-9, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Our common story as the Christian people is, of course, rooted in the story of our spiritual forebears, the Jews, the people of Israel. Our first reading this morning, from Deuteronomy, has Israel on the east bank of the Jordan River, getting ready to make the crossing into the land that God had promised to them. Their leader, Moses, knows he is about to die, and will not be making the crossing with them. What we heard this morning is a section of what was possibly the most important speech, the most critical pep-talk, of his entire life. Up until that point, the Hebrew people had been a nation without a land, a people without a piece of real estate that they could call their own. For more than an entire generation, they had been nomads, living in tents, always on the move. Before that, they were slaves. Now everything was about to change. They were going in to take possession of the Promised Land. They needed to learn a different way to live. Moses, in his final act of leadership, wanted to help them create a clear national and ethnic identity. During their wilderness sojourn, the people of Israel had indeed come to know God—Yahweh, the LORD—as a living reality, one who guided and directed, and with whom communion and fellowship is something to be desired and sought. But that was in the desert, where they literally needed to be guided day by day. Now they were going to live in settled towns and villages, tending crops rather than gathering manna every morning, pasturing their herds and flocks in the same general area rather than being constantly on the move. They needed to learn a new way to live, and Moses was right there with the prescription—which was the Torah, the Law of Moses.

Moses saw the Torah as God’s gift by which to accomplish the goal of creating a new national identity for Israel, a means of constantly reminding the people who they are and to whom they belong. The Torah consists of outward public and private observances—613 individual statues, to be precise. They govern a wide array of concerns, ranging from corporate worship to healthcare to criminal justice to family relations to social and civil relations to economic order to sexual behavior and even personal diet and hygiene. Each of the 613 individual laws was intended to help shape and form the people into a community that “walks with the Lord,” that continues to rely on the Lord for provision and guidance and direction, just as they had done during the forty years in the wilderness. Far from being an oppressive yoke around their necks, the people were encouraged to see the Law of Moses as a veritable gift of life, straight from the hand of a gracious God. Listen to Moses’ words to the people:

And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them…Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ …make them known to your children and your children’s children.

Well, as you know, the people of Israel settled the Promised Land. Years and decades and centuries passed. The Law of Moses was successively “forgotten” and “rediscovered” several times. Some of the leaders of Israel were faithful to the Lord and led the people in His ways. More, however, were unfaithful, and led the people astray. There were periods of peace and prosperity, but longer periods of great political and social and military turmoil. Eventually, about 500 years or so after they had crossed the Jordan, Israel was once again largely a landless nation, as they found themselves in exile, only to have a remnant return a couple of generations later and re-establish the capital city of Jerusalem. During the rising and falling of their national fortunes, the people of Israel—the Jews—engaged in an ongoing struggle over how, or how not, to adapt the Torah to the changing circumstances of their existence. In the process, their understanding of the Torah tended to become rather brittle, rather mechanical, exceedingly legalistic. Layer after layer of “expert” opinion on the interpretation of the Law of Moses piled themselves on top of one another. In time, this collection of interpretation and explanation began to weigh more than the actual law itself. People got caught up in these secondary matters of interpretation and lost their focus on the laws themselves and the intent behind the laws. This gave rise to various classes of professional Torah scholars and teachers—such as priests and scribes—as well as “parties” within Judaism. These scholars and teachers and parties all offered conflicting viewpoints, and the Torah came to be seen as an end in itself, rather than a means to a holy end. Keeping the Law correctly in every detail became more important than knowing God and pleasing God and having fellowship with God, which was the whole reason for the Law in the first place.

Then, some 1200 years or so after the giving of the Law of Moses, Jesus appears on the scene. In one incident, he engages the dry, brittle, legalistic handling of the Torah that had become so prevalent in Judaism. Some scribes—members of a professional class of Torah teachers—notice Jesus’ disciples failing to observe one of the secondary interpretations of the Torah that had become standard ritual practice, and they take Jesus to task for it. Jesus wastes no time in condemning their hyper-technical approach to the Law:

There is nothing outside a person which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a person are what defile him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.

Now, as Christians, we need to be very careful not to read this passage in isolation from the rest of scripture. Yes, Jesus excoriates the scribes and their allies. He calls them “hypocrites” and “whitewashed tombs”—some pretty strong language. But he does not condemn religious practice itself. On the contrary, Jesus faithfully observed it. He was circumcised on the eighth day and presented in the temple on the fortieth day of his life. He accompanied his parents on pilgrimages to Jerusalem for religious festivals. He participated in synagogue worship while living and working in Galilee. Indeed, the Last Supper, at which he instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, was a Jewish ritual meal. Jesus was an observant, religiously practicing Jew during his entire life.

You know, the word “religion” has a bad name in some Christian circles these days, but I would contend that this is undeserved. I think we can safely say that Christian religious practice is an effective means to the end of fellowship with God. The particular things we do that would come under the category of the practice of religion are intended to help us know God better, to walk with Him and follow Him. They are channels of light and life. We make it a priority to come together for corporate worship on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, because the resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our hope. We keep the seasons of the liturgical year—the feasts, the fasts, and the ordinary times—because doing so constantly drills us on the essentials of our faith. We say our daily prayers at regular times because we know that God is present in and works through the mystery of time. We fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, and we keep the other Fridays of the year as days of special devotion, because we know that in fasting and prayer God speaks to us and leads us. We examine our consciences and confess our sins regularly because only by receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness can we grow closer to Him. Just as the Law of Moses formed the people of Israel and gave them a sense of national identity, so the practice of Christian religion forms us as the Church and gives us a sense of Christian “ethnic” identity.

Can these good things be abused by latter-day “scribes” and “Pharisees”? Yes, and they can be and have been and continue to be. I once had a newly confirmed adult—a college professor, no less, a smart guy—ask me on the very day of his confirmation: “OK, now what are the rules?” Clearly, he thought of the practice of religion not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. But, as we know, just because something can be misused doesn’t mean we should throw it out. Rather, we should discipline ourselves to use it properly, and teach others to do the same. Christian religious practices can be misused. But they are also the very means of grace, and we embrace them with joy and expectation that they will facilitate an encounter with the Holy, that they will escort us into the courts of the most high God. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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