In this week’s Gospel from Mark 7 we hear of the Pharisees, who in their zeal for Judaism had turned their religion from a means into an end, from an affair of the heart to an outward form of external observance. Jesus was frustrated with the Pharisees, but I don't think he held them in the same contempt that many of us do today. Among the Jews of Jesus time, the Pharisees were the most faithful. Their religious system was designed to release the worship of the true God from the confines of the
and make it more accessible to all
people in their daily lives. Temple
They wanted to fulfil a prophecy of Jeremiah and that prophecy was a high ideal. I might add, they did their best to fulfil it. So, with the best of intentions, they applied the law to every aspect of life, and most of all, they were scrupulous about honouring the food which they received from God. God had brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey, and they gratefully took to heart what the Lord commanded them to do in return.
They believed in giving heed to the statutes and ordinances that God taught them to observe, so that they would live well in the land that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, had given them. They believed, you must neither add anything to what I command nor take anything away from it but keep the commandments of the Lord your God. They had accepted the call to observe the commandments diligently, for this would show wisdom and discernment to the peoples. It was believed that, when they heard all the statutes, people would say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!"
But something went terribly wrong. They were not respected as a wise and discerning people. They were treated with contempt, and they suffered under the yoke of Roman oppression. Jesus told them that were not fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy, but Isaiah's. "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines." When we talk about the Pharisees' problem we do so by making a distinction between law and gospel.
Many Christians believe we are saved by hearing and believing the good news of Jesus Christ. This is a false distinction. The Law and religion are good gifts from God, and both Paul and Jesus affirm that. But like all of God's good gifts they are subject to use or abuse, and they are abused when they're not practiced in the context of love. This is the most important point about the good news that Jesus bought. The good news is that our God is a God of love.
The trouble for the Pharisees was that they used the law to set themselves apart as better than other people and not to depend upon God. The name "Pharisees" means "separated ones." Perhaps the contempt they'd experienced from others led them to be contemptuous in return. The Pharisees had strict hygiene and dietary rules, particularly when it came to what they ate and what was washed. It sounds like today's Christian believers ending up in hell for eating meat with their salad fork.
Yet, if we are seeking to discover a true religion we need to be honest and admit that no matter how hard we try we can't get it right. If we miss the mark often enough, we may fear that we are headed for a bad end. In despair, we may seek reassurance in comparing ourselves to others. That's very thin ice because we can only compare our insides and their outsides.
In that case, the best we can hope for is a dull and formal religion in which we become like Anthony Trollope's Miss Thorne, whose "virtues were too numerous to describe, and not sufficiently interesting to deserve description." Perhaps it's time to think about renewing our covenant with God and setting aside some time to meditate on ways that we can be a more faithful and obedient Christians.
The law and the rules are a gift from God, but they are not meant as an end in themselves. They can be, however, instruments for expressing your love for God. That is the first commandment. Love God with everything you've got. There is, however, another gift, as important as the law, which shapes inward obedience the way the law shapes outward obedience. For the covenant you make is not just a covenant with God; it is also a covenant with God's people.
God has given us a precious gift to help us keep the commandments in love. That gift is the people in your life that you really cannot stand. Without them you cannot truly learn to love God. Let us pray that we may have the humility to forgive them as we have been forgiven and to love them as Jesus has loved us. That is the way of the true religion for which we have prayed.