Monday, August 27, 2018

Ritual Purity

It's not easy to go out to eat with little children. Not only are they squirmy, noisy, and impatient, but they're often picky eaters. Finding a restaurant that serves food that is attractive to everyone in your party can be a real deterrent. The same is true for sharing a meal with friends who don't have children as young and picky as your own. By the time you load up hot dogs, fruit slices, and Cheerios into your cooler so that your two-year-old will have something to eat, it almost feels silly to go to someone else's house.

I don't know this from personal experience, but I observe that it is difficult to live as a vegetarian and, of course, even more difficult to live as a vegan. As I've written before, a clergy mentor of mine who is a vegetarian struggled to find a pastoral connection with his parish in part because they wanted to have him over for meat-and-potatoes style meals but were afraid to invite him over for a meatless meal. They didn't know how to do it well enough for the vicar, and so a rift developed. It's hard to have a gluten-free diet. It can be hard to abstain from alcohol, especially when booze is as much a part of your social culture as it is in Episcopal circles.

Making accommodation isn't easy. It requires effort on all sides. And, when that accommodation is for religious purposes, changing a recipe or abstaining from a dish becomes an expression of faith. We honor God and our relationship with God by holding onto the tradition of our faith even when--especially when--it's inconvenient.

So, in Sunday's gospel lesson from Mark 7, why does Jesus seem to throw aside the traditions of his faith as if they were wrong in the first place? The Pharisees and some of the scribes come to Jesus, a recognized religious leader, a rabbi with a growing following, and ask him why he allows his disciples to eat without ritually cleansing their hands. The cleansing process doesn't take too long. It requires some deliberate washing and praying. One can accomplish it in a minute or two. They may have had a critical tone or a scoffing attitude, but their question would have been a natural one. Just as I would ask a colleague why he or she celebrated Eucharist but omitted the Lord's Prayer, they are asking a rabbi why he has dispensed with a nearly universal practice in their faith. And Jesus isn't happy about it.

His reply? "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." In other words, Jesus has decided that one of the central practices of his people's faith is a human invention and not a divine mandate. Does he have the authority to do this? Of course he does. But why make it such a big deal?

Maybe the best way to make sense of Jesus' statement is to accept the assumptions that usually undergird the interpretation of this passage: the Pharisees were hypocrites who only maintained religious practice for show. Maybe that's true. Maybe the Pharisees weren't approaching Jesus in genuine concern but in order to discredit him. But I'm not so sure. As you can tell, I want to start from a place of tradition as genuine religion--of practice leading to faith--because that's foundational to my experience of religion. I want to know whether Jesus has a problem with tradition itself--with symbolic practice engendering actual relationship because, if he does, I may need to consider a career change.

The key, I think, comes is weighing carefully Jesus' logic: "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." That makes sense. Eating without washing my hands doesn't automatically make me a bad person, but can't it also mean I've missed an opportunity to express my gratitude to God for giving me a holy meal? The mistake is letting the practice replace the relationship. I can't have a meaningful relationship with God by showing up to church on Sunday. But showing up to church on Sunday can be an important part of honoring and engendering a meaningful relationship with God. And sometimes preachers like Jesus have to take an extreme position to cut through the centuries of inherited tradition.

I might be preaching this Sunday, and, as a month-old new rector, this could be my chance to throw all of our traditions out the window just to prove a point. But why would I want to update my OTM profile (online clergy career database) this early in my tenure?

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