Today message from Matthew 15: 10-20 relates the story of Jesus responding to critics. The larger issue was ritual purity, in this case a shallow, perfunctory hand-washing. Now before you feel that this ancient hand-washing was for hygiene reasons, you must understand that there was no germ theory in Jesus’ day. There is no evidence that Jews or anyone else understood the science of how “dirty” hands contribute to infections. Yes, people could see bits of surface dirt just as you and I can. But we know that it isn’t what you can see on your skin that kills you but rather the unseen, microscopic bacteria and viruses. Moreover, if hands are washed in contaminated water then the main source of sickness remains. Ritualistic hand-washing is better than no washing at all, but not to the extent of judging people as god-hating sinners if they fail to do so. Go away pesky priest—God is not on your side!
The fundamentalists pestering Jesus thought that people had to undergo elaborate, inconvenient rituals just for the sake of . . . what? Oh, because God told them to do it. Let’s move-on a bit. The context of Jesus’ message entails the larger issue of Kosher food regulations and the vast swamp of Old Testament law. In Jesus’ day as much as now, there remains a peculiar belief that certain foods are intrinsically impure, that they are somehow spiritually polluted. This is just one area among many where arcane rules try to regulate life. Jesus was criticized by the legalists of his day because He was perceived as an innovator, a role detested by fundamentalists both ancient and modern.
The issue of teaching and following unsubstantiated religious rules is a life-and-death matter for many people who have surrendered themselves to others’ control. Examine many world religions and you will find them pot-marked by beliefs and practices that impose needless burdens, including what kind of food is permitted, how it must be prepared, etc. That God tells people what and how to eat is often justly ridiculed, especially in light of modern biology and nutritional sciences. Even those among us who might be sympathetic to restrictive interpretations realize that we must be wary of imposed, one-size-fits-all rules that undermine individuals’ autonomy and that also contradict both science and good sense.
The idea that God wants to micromanage may be nothing more than a matter of human control, masked by the power of prohibitions that undermine individuality and perpetuate fantasy. Proponents of legalistic ritualism argue that following God is central regardless of any other factors. For such persons who elevate strictness as truth, whether or not a rule is vindicated by scientific evidence is irrelevant, because we aren’t supposed to question God, the Church Fathers, the Brahman priests, the Islamic imams, the rabbis, or whosoever claims to be in control as God’s representative.
Those mired in captive thinking cite the need for community cohesion through imposing narrow boundaries on how people think and act. Such traditionalists argue that strictures on what people do may advance collective interests over individual prerogatives (which is arguably not all bad). While such arguments appear legitimate, consider that religious institutions, not society at large, are often sole beneficiaries of strict religiosity. As you scan history it is obvious that most rulers perceive their task as privileged enforcers, those who establish and police order for their own benefit. Such nonsense is perpetuated all the more strongly when autocrats impose their rule as extensions of divine will.
O.K., so here we are wondering what to do with the mess left by competing views of what God wants. Do we march to a tight, rigid path or do we advance with fits and starts knowing that adjustments are periodically necessary? Truth would have us avoid blind adherence to tradition unless there are clear, demonstrable benefits for the people called to bear the burdens. Often, we forget why we do something and instead embrace beliefs and practices for no other reason than the momentum of habitual mindlessness (hidden under the term tradition, God’s will, or obedience). The remedy to such spirit-sickness involves sober examination of what we do, paired with a willingness to revise our beliefs and practices to comport not only with reality but also with the greatest mandate of all: love. In other words, if a religious rule does not enhance the life of another human being than it should either be discarded or remain optional. Our challenge is not to substitute sacrificial strictness (e.g., outside compliance, appearance) for true righteousness (e.g., inward purity, morality).