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Message for Sunday 19 May 2019: “Reject Ruinous Religious Rules”

Today’s lectionary reading from the book of Acts illuminates ruinous religious rules (Acts 11: 1-18). The issue in the Bible passage is the ancient Jewish dietary regulations and whether Jesus’ followers were bound by them.

First some necessary historical background. Christianity started as a reform movement within Judaism and Jesus was Jewish as were all of his Apostles (and most if not all of his earliest disciples). Gradually, Jesus’ teachings appealed to primarily non-Jews, a fact that over time split and distinguished Christianity from Judaism. This situation meant that many people embracing Jesus’ teachings faced problems of how to reconcile Jewish teachings with Jesus’ message.

Enter Saint Peter, the central character in today’s narrative. He had a dream-like vision about all sorts of animals that had been previously forbidden for Jews to eat. But all that was to change–thankfully. A heavenly voice told Peter that he was now permitted to eat almost anything because God hadn’t really supported all the needless restrictions. To appreciate Peter’s progressive new view, just look through a contrasting Bible book as Exodus, where the weird religious diet began with the Passover celebration. The dietary laws became even more complicated, with some of the key passages described in Leviticus chapter 11.

The Old Testament’s strict dietary laws are also known as kosher rules, but aside from no relevancy to Christianity they also have no special basis in nutritional science. Modern researchers have studied kosher diets and found no reliable, positive correlation between the Old Testament teachings and what we now know to be legitimate food science. Ancient Jews had no consciousness of modern dietary research. Aside from food, the prescribed, endless ritual washings of food vessels in ancient rites also did not necessarily make people healthier. Surface washing doesn’t do much because disease-causing pathogens are not visible with the unaided eye.

Consider one example of an obsolete food law: the Old Testament ban on pork. Undercooked pork can result in an illness known as trichinosis. However, sickness can arise from all sorts of foods depending on how they are prepared and stored. Pork has been wrongly derided because it is higher in protein and lower in bad fat than beef products (which are promoted in the Old Testament). Trying to argue with folks who embrace unsupported diets doesn’t appeal to their spiritual appetite because they’re intent on following tradition over truth. Thank God that we have been set free from such nonsense. Our role is to remain vigilant and not allow superstition and error to undermine our food choices or broader life liberties.

In Peter’s time of first-century Judaism many of the traditional Jews, even those who had decided to follow Jesus, didn’t accept the freedom to expand their food menu. The stubborn resistors of God’s new Way embraced a stricter rule, and they felt that something valuable was being lost by lifting the kosher regulations. So ingrained had the distasteful food preferences become that many people didn’t know how to function without them. It seems that when captives exist in slavery too long, sticking with the familiar feels comforting and less threatening than taking risks on freedom’s journey.

Religions often impose harsh diets and other arbitrary limitations upon their followers, and seldom for legitimate reasons. The manipulators of religion use coercion to create an organizational structure that encourages authoritarian impulses. Bureaucrats, priests and other officiants perceive themselves as privileged, institutional enforcers of “God’s truth.” Once emboldened with a false sense of righteousness, religious elites become drunk with power and then exchange their poison with the masses. Worse, ruinous religious rules encourage a destructive pride among the tiny populist minority who can consistently obey life-choking rules.

The dysfunctional psychology of militant rule followers arises from strangulating religion and results in the sacrifice of decency if not sanity. A twisted logic leads religious extremists to believe that by creating and living by contrived commands they will earn a special place in heaven. Their calculation is seductive but not true; rules don’t get people into heaven. Generation after generation of supporters of harsh religion seem to think that by stacking high their hallowed traditions and ruinous rules they will create a stairway to heaven. Sadly, what really happens is that their lies lead in the opposite direction, toward a living hell, one which imprisons souls while sucking people into a life-crushing abyss.

Both Judaism and Christianity have contributed to the regrettable practice of burdening believers with “Don’t do this!” commands. But the remedy isn’t the opposite. Caution is warranted lest we throw out the religious baby with the spiritual bath water. For instance, the ethical framework as summed-up in the Ten Commandments is as timeless a guide for human behavior as any inherited from the ancient world. For most other Old Testament rules, not so much. The danger of error remains: humans can become trapped within toxic religion, one which twists truth and falsely teaches that strict living equals righteousness.

Sick, ruinous religion is effective at keeping people in their place, often from fear of social exclusion and divine damnation.  Yet, to reject ruinous religious rules does not mean that everyone should be free to do whatever they want; anarchy isn’t healthy. For the common good, it’s worth the effort to strike an imperfect balance between freedom and responsibility. Jesus realized that we should ‘ “. . . love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” ‘(John 13:34b-35). Jesus set us free, but bad religion seeks to imprison us. It’s no longer about rules, but about love, which is the monumental force empowering our faith and practice.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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