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Sunday Message for 2 September 2018: “Cleanse the Soul”

Muddy waters often surround Old Testament religious rules but today’s scripture contains Jesus’ response to this messy problem. What survives of Jesus’ teachings suggests that he had an ambivalent response to the Old Testament worldview.

On the one hand, Jesus said that, “. . . till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one ]tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. . .”(Matthew 5:18-19a). On the other hand, today’s scripture (Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23) presents a Jesus who washes his hands from contaminated Old Testament dirt.

What about Jesus’ mixed attitude? Jesus rejected strict, unloving critics who rigidly adhered to a twisted form of Old Testament performance art. What upset Jesus was the perfectionistic, repetitive acting-out of certain rules and rituals which obscured God’s truth. Nowhere are excessive rules more obvious or troublesome than in certain forms of religion, which can promote spiritual blight. Jesus realized this problem with the rule-based, contemporary Judaism he sought to reform. Sadly, the same destructive tendency in ancient religion has infected Christianity through the ages. This means that modern followers of God must be as vigilant as ever and call-out and seek to reform similar evils.

The issue in Mark 7 involved legalistic religious critics (Pharisees) who criticized Jesus’ disciples for their lack of ceremonial washing. Jesus was confronted by religious bureaucrats who were experts in laws that they had created and from which they profited. There’s nothing wrong with getting the dirt off fingers or plates but Jesus preached against outward appearance when it displaced inner purity. In addition, the rule about hand-washing wasn’t done from knowledge of modern hygiene. Prior to modern biology, people were ignorant about the microscopic viruses and bacteria which cause illness. All the ancient ritual hand-washing wasn’t motivated by scientific knowledge of germ theory but rather by a human preference for outward, observable ritual purity. Silly? Sure, and it is this obsession with the maniacal minutiae of religious rituals that Jesus condemned.

Those ancient Jewish religious experts Jesus denounced had elevated their traditions to a life-and-death status. This summons a larger issue of the more than six-hundred Old Testament rules, ethnic commands which strike most modern readers as horribly irrelevant. Consider a prohibition against mixing wool and linen in your clothing (Deuteronomy 22:11) or how menstruating women are “unclean” and need to be segregated from society (Leviticus 15:19-30). Such rules, if they ever were legitimate, are certainly not required for God followers. In contrast to the questionable heap of Old Testament regulations, Jesus demonstrated that love is the priority for which no religion, rule or ritual should be substituted.

In response to the critics, Jesus didn’t mince his words. He warned against relying on externals at the expense of compassion. “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:6-8). Jesus’ rebuke echoes through the ages, implicating not only ancient Jewish Pharisees but generations of priests and others within Christendom who’ve abandoned righteousness for the sake of pompous ritual.

To be fair, Jesus wasn’t absolutely denying the benefits of rules, rituals, or traditions. The problem he cited was mostly bad religion. Jesus knew that much of the Old Testament resided in ethnic distinctiveness not applicable outside Judaism. Moreover, mere rules are not the problem. Safety and security require that some things be done in a certain manner—hence rules. Without rules, anarchy reigns. Therefore, any wholesale condemnation of rules and ritualism isn’t the point. Also consider that some of Christianity’s most cherished religious rituals (such as communion and baptism) provide a deeply reassuring, comforting feeling. Such traditions, which are greater than rules, are common both inside and outside the church. As a form of passed-down knowledge, traditions profoundly connect people through time and distance. The problem is when rules, rituals and traditions become infected and decay into life-sucking, manipulated requirements that distract and burden. Jesus flatly declared that rules and traditions are made to help people; people are not made to serve rules (Matthew 12:1-8).

Jesus realized the problem with how bad religion kills from within. Jesus’ revealed how servile obedience to rule-based tradition consumes people like a soul cancer. Evils arise when priests ancient or modern peddle requirements of their own creation, for the sake of dominating people and fostering dependence upon institutional bureaucracy. When Jesus criticized the priests he exposed how their rules, rituals and traditions perverted God’s Way.

Let’s rejoice that we are free to love and be loved without an interfering, administrative hierarchy. After all, this was what Christianity’s Protestant Reformation was all about, starting in the sixteenth-century and remaining vigilant to this day. Praise God that we are immersed in divine love that transforms, not from priestly water pouring over hands but from a miraculous, soul-cleansing redemption.     –Reverend Hoxey