14 Pentecost B—8/30/15
Deut. 4:1-2,6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Pr. Scott Kramer
This morning’s gospel reading from Mark picks up where last week’s reading from John left off: All the Jews do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it and there are also many other traditions that they observe…So the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?
Jesus’ response? You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.
Why does Jesus come down so hard on tradition–and religious traditions in particular? According to our readings there is one reason: Traditions can become a substitute for the “law of liberty,” as James puts it, or the “commandment of God,” as Jesus puts it, which is: to love one another. The reason for religious faith is this: To learn and to remember what God’s love looks like, in order to put that into practice every day of our lives. As the book of Deuteronomy puts it, don’t add anything. Don’t subtract anything. It’s all about the “commandment of God,” which is love!
In our second reading James writes: Religion that points to anything else is “worthless.” Because, he says, you can be “religious” and yet allow your life to be consumed by resentment and anger. You can be religious, Jesus says, and still be obsessed by sex. You can be religious, he says, and yet practice theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, envy, slander, pride, folly. It’s easy, Jesus teaches, to be religious without practicing the love of Christ for all people.
Jesus uses the word “hypocrite” to describe religious people who forget who they are: people beloved of God, called to practice that same love toward all. James teaches that “forgetting” is the problem: like someone who looks in a mirror and as soon as they turn away they forget what they look like.
Now, we might get the idea that the lesson here is: “Don’t be a hypocrite.” But this misses the point, because…we’re all hypocrites! Surely you can read today’s readings and find plenty of evidence in your own life of anger, greed, envy, pride, and deceit. Unless we don’t know ourselves at all, surely at least those among us who have spent a lifetime in the church can acknowledge that much. With a little study and a bit of courage we might even find how all those other categories—adultery, theft, murder—as Jesus defines them, also apply. This list is a pretty big net into which all of us are scooped up.
Religious traditions and rituals lead us away from the living God when they fail to make us better at loving one another. We gather this morning and every Sunday morning, dear friends, not for the sake of tradition; not because we are good—we’re not—and not in order to gain God’s favor through our worship and our traditions—we can’t. We are here, boldly and freely confessing that we are hypocrites and sinners. We come, despite all that and because of all that, ready to remember God’s unconditional forgiveness and love for us and for all creation. We come, ready to learn just a little better how to be Christ for the sake of the world!