St Mary’s, Robinson—Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27
If you spend very much time reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, it will not escape you that the Judeo-Christian God has a very low opinion of the practice of idolatry. An idol is presumed to be an image or statue, fashioned by human hands from stone or wood or metal, which is then set in a prominent place and worshiped—people make physical gestures of veneration towards it. Psalm 135 makes fun of idol worship with these words: “The idols of the heathen are but silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; eyes have they, but they cannot see. They have ears, but they cannot hear; neither is there any breath in their mouth.“ The anonymous author of the Book of Deuteronomy is particularly worked up about idolatry. There are three verses that are inexplicably omitted from the lectionary citation for this morning’s first reading that refer to an incident when some of the Israelites worshiped an image of the pagan god Baal, and suffered some very unpleasant consequences.
Of course, it’s easy for us who are scientifically literate and intellectually sophisticated 21st century Americans to absolve ourselves of the sin of idolatry. Even those of us who are given to some of the expressions of Catholic Christian piety are not pretending that a statue of the risen Christ is itself the actual risen Christ. Our culture might be guilty of a whole bunch of horrible things, one might argue, but idolatry is not one of them. Or is it? The reason the Psalmist mocks idolaters is not because they’re bowing down to images of silver and gold, but because they think those images are gods! An idol is simply a false god, something or someone who is worshiped as God, to whom ultimate worth is ascribed, but who is not actually God. When we look at idolatry that way, we can suddenly see how pervasive it is in our society. There’s even a TV show named for it—American Idol—where immense adulation and at least virtual ultimate worth is offered to the performer who survives the gauntlet of biased and sarcastic judges. But we have many idols: power, political victory, accumulation of wealth, family, work, our favorite sports teams, youthfulness—it’s a very long list.
No, we don’t get a pass on idolatry. It surrounds us as much as it surrounded ancient Israel as they made their way into the pagan territory of the Promised Land. Even we who constitute the community of the Baptized, the People of God in this world, need to be especially fearless in our self-examination, lest we have even unintentionally worshiped one of the idols, one of the false gods, of the natives of this land. Even we who are in Christ operate with hearts and minds that are distorted by the power of sin and death. We share with all our fellow human creatures a tendency, a predisposition, to look around us, to look at ourselves, and see not what is actually there but what we want to be there. Without meaning to, we adjust our perceptions of reality in ways that lead inexorably to our own gratification, and the sooner that gratification can come, the better. This is especially true in our “cafeteria culture” of the developed western world, where the Autonomous Self has been enthroned as a god, where we worship personal freedom and individual choice and an endless supply of alternatives and options, and our motto is, “It works for me!”
In such an environment, anything that falls under the general category of “religion” becomes kind of dangerous. We are biased in favor of anything that immediately affirms whatever we’re feeling and aspiring to in the moment, that gives us whatever we think we’re looking for as quickly as possible, and the same system creates a bias against anything that seems to constrain us or direct us or challenge any of our self-gratifying assumptions. And, from a traditional Christian perspective, this leaves us completely vulnerable to false teaching, the most serious of which the Church has over the centuries often labeled as “heresy,” only calling anything heresy has a tarnished reputation these days, because it’s so … judgmental; it limits my choices and narrows my options, and that can’t be a good thing. And false teaching—heresy—points in only one direction. Ultimately, it leads only to idolatry.
What shall we do? From where is our help to come? I would like to make the counter-intuitive suggestion to you that our help comes from an unlikely place, a place that makes many in our society these days, even many Christians these days, roll their eyes in suspicion. I’m simply talking about the practice of religion. It’s even possible to read the gospels in such a way that the practice of religion comes out smelling sort of rank, and today’s passage from the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel is one of those passages. The Pharisees—whom we might think of as making up a sort of “religious order” within first-century Judaism—the Pharisees had taken the Law of Moses—which figures prominently in the Book of Deuteronomy, and which was already pretty complex—the Pharisees took the Law of Moses and made it exponentially more complex. The Law of Moses represents religious practice; the Pharisees represent religious practice on steroids. And we read today how Jesus and his disciples mixed it up with the Pharisees over some details of religious practice. Jesus calls them out on this, and appropriately so, because the Pharisees had refined religious practice to a point that the original obvious connection between the practice and the reason for the practice was totally lost, and wasn’t even considered important. But, in calling them out, Jesus never condemns religious practice itself, only the distortion of religious practice in which it becomes a self-justifying end, rather than a means to an end. (The Epistle of James, which we heard from this morning, reinforces that point.)
So, what do I mean by “religious practice”? I’m talking about the various things we do in order to cooperate with God’s grace for the purpose of making us holy, making us more like Jesus, turning us into saints. Religious practice is not the same thing as having faith. Religious practice presumes a certain baseline level of faith, and its purpose is to help our faith grow. Faith begets practice and practice begets more faith, and more faith begets more practice, and so on. Religious practices are usually habits, routines. When my feet hit the floor as I get out of bed every morning, I am conditioned to make the sign of the cross and remind myself of my baptismal identity, that I have been marked as Christ’s own forever. That’s a religious practice. Saying grace before meals is a religious practice. Participating in public worship each Sunday is a religious practice. Praying at bedtime is a religious practice. Tithing is a religious practice. The list could go on, almost indefinitely.
The benefit of religious practice is that it enables us to adhere more closely to true teaching and avoid false teaching. And when we adhere to true teaching and avoid false teaching, we are much less likely to lapse into idolatry. We are less likely to worship the array of false gods that clamor for our attention, and more likely to worship the true and living God—the God who gave the ancient Hebrews the Law of Moses, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And when we worship the true and living God, we become whole as human beings, we are doing that for which we were created, and for which our souls yearn.
And why is this? Why is it that religious practice—as routine and habitual as it invariably becomes—why is religious practice so effective in keeping us away from idolatry and turning us into saints? Because, just as our human predisposition toward gratifying our own desires warps our judgment and corrupts our hearts and minds, so our human response to repetitive behavior has a cumulative and profound beneficial impact on those same hearts and minds. Religious practice entails saying certain words and performing certain actions, over and over again—daily, weekly, seasonally, annually—during the course of a lifetime. At any given moment, those words and actions might seem dry and lifeless, and will most certainly often be boring, which is perhaps the one unforgivable sin in our culture! But generations of saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs will join me in bearing witness to you that … it works. It simply works. If you would be a saint, if you would be like Jesus, if you would become holy, then do the things and say the things, repeatedly, again and again, that will produce the fruits you long for. Don’t see religious practices as ends in themselves—in other words, don’t become Pharisees—but as means to the most worthy end of the perfection of your holiness. And, in the process, without even trying that hard, you will avoid idolatry. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.