Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 7:1-23
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
Rules are simple things. By means of rules we divide the universe into halves, and we set one against the other. One obeys a rule, or one does not. One is right or wrong, in or out. There is only light and dark, black and white, and by means of such a mental contrivance we simplify our world.
There is only one problem. Rules are imaginary things.
Our world is probably not imaginary, or if it is, we are part of the same dream. Imagination is not what we see, it is how we see it.
Take the creation stories of Genesis. They help us to imagine the coming into being of the world—so far so good. When we take those stories and set them against the explanations of science, we have ourselves performed an act of creation—we have created a duality that does not exist, pitting science against faith. If science discovers a truth that contradicts a tenet of faith, as Galileo did, then it is our theology that is flawed.
It is a bit like describing death to a child. An explanation of the biological process, while scientific, may be useful on some levels, but such an explanation will not assuage her grief. A non-scientific story, even a mythical or fanciful one, illustrating the wheel or cycle of life may be more helpful in addressing her feelings, the human pain of loss. The two approaches are different, but they are not in opposition. Both are helpful in the right setting. Yet there is something in humanity that wants to hold to a single view, a single explanation of the world, as though the mind were a hand too small to grasp two strings at once.
It is the easy way.
The religious folk in the passage from Mark are no different. Beginning with the notion of living a life of faith, they had developed rules. Having developed the rules, they began to follow the rules instead of their faith.
Rules define things. One either follows them or one does not; one is therefore considered faithful by the other religious folk or one is not. Rules eliminate the gray areas on the face of our moral compass. Tithing replaces generosity. Obedience replaces faith. Rules replace thought. Religion replaces love.
Modern Christians are tempted to label the people in this Gospel story as ‘Old Testament’ thinkers—people of the rules—as opposed to the opposite notion of ‘New Testament’ thinkers—people of grace. That only works if you forget that 700 years before Christ was born, the prophet Micah had already gotten there:
Long before Jesus dealt with these rule followers, the prophets had already rejected sacrifice and ritual and rules. It seems no one was listening. Centuries later, the people around Jesus were still more concerned about ritual, rules and conformity than about love.
In all of scripture, it was never written that God preferred rules, or governance, or even religion. The prophets told us that God is love, that God is light.
Sin was never about failing to follow rules. Sin is always about failing to act in love.
No matter how well we follow the rules, if we act without love, we have failed. We become religious instead of faithful. If we forget all the rules, but treat ourselves and one another with love, we are people after God’s own heart.