You’re receiving the longest Message Supplement of the year because the issues stirred-up by religious rules are enormous, and the lectionary scripture selection contains Jesus’ response to this messy problem (Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23). Let’s prepare ourselves with a refreshing breath and try to grow stronger as we explore some challenging issues. God wants us to cultivate an open heart and mind.
To help the discussion, I’m creating a literary device titled Ruined Religion Rules (RRR). As the three Rs suggest, there is a triple-threat: 1) Ruined is how people feel when they are burdened, discouraged or judged by self-described expert critics; 2) Religion represents faith when used as exploitative tool, especially when authorities coerce compliance; and 3) Rules are prescribed actions that first develop into rituals and then over time become traditions, behaviors often created by religious specialists and institutional enforcers who control people for the benefit of the institution over the individual. Jesus was upset about the problem described by the RRR. While Jesus was generally supportive of the Old Testament framework, he rejected strict, unloving critics who defended a twisted form of performance art, the perfectionistic, repetitive acting-out of certain rules and rituals which ultimately become inherited tradition.
Corruption of God’s way results in human peril. Nowhere are excessive rules more obvious or troublesome than in certain forms of religion, where they place burdens on people ultimately leading to crushed spirits and soul incarceration. Jesus realized this problem with a rule-based religion such as the Judaism he sought to reform. Jesus spoke against imprisoning people within needless ways of thinking and behaving. The specific issue in Mark’s passage involves legalistic critics who saw how Jesus’ disciples did not practice ceremonial washing of hands and utensils. Silly? Perhaps to us today. However, those ancient Jewish religious experts known as Pharisees elevated the issue to a near life-and-death matter. Pharisees may have added rules and such that were new and novel, not even part of Judaism proper. Whatever the case, this beckons the larger issue of the more than six-hundred Old Testament rules, supposed commands which for most modern Christians are justly 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). Really? It’s hard to imagine that Jesus went to the cross to defend such peculiar laws. No, Jesus demonstrated that love is the final sacrifice for which no rule or ritual can be substituted.
Jesus was confronted by religious bureaucrats who were experts in laws that they had created and passed-down. These critics observed how Jesus’ disciples did not perform a showy hand-washing. The rule about hand-washing wasn’t done from any knowledge of modern hygiene. Prior to modern biology, people were ignorant about microscopic viruses and bacteria which we know are responsible for illnesses. All the ancient ritual hand-washing wasn’t motivated by a scientific knowledge of germ theory but rather by a human preference for outward, observable ritual purity. Jesus responded to their criticism and it is the ramifications of this exchange under examination. As usual, Jesus didn’t mince his words. He warned against relying on external ritual at the expense of compassionate love. “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’ response to the critics highlights how God wants us to have a pure heart over observably clean hands. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting the dirt off your fingers, at least from the perspective of visible cleanliness, but Jesus preached against outward appearance when it either replaces or takes precedence over inner purity (our path to God).
Now for a disclaimer. Neither Jesus nor I are categorically denying the benefits of rules, rituals, or traditions. Caution demands that we not jump on a rule-bashing bandwagon. Jesus claimed that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). Still, Jesus was not endorsing bad religion. He knew that much of the Old Testament resided in ethnic distinctiveness not applicable elsewhere. Yes, rules are necessary. Safety and security require that some things be done in a certain manner. Without rules, anarchy reigns. Similarly, rituals in themselves are not the problem. Some of our most cherished religious rituals (such as Christian communion or Eucharist) provide a deeply reassuring, comforting insight into spiritual mysteries not otherwise approachable. Traditions are likewise everywhere, both inside and outside the church. As a form of passed-down knowledge continuous with our ancestors, traditions can keep connections alive despite the passage of time and circumstance. The problem occurs when rules, rituals and traditions become infected and decay via the route of the Ruined Religion Rules (RRR) outlined above. Damage results when rules, rituals and traditions are separated from either God’s loving Spirit or good-sense.
What was the basis of Old Testament Law? Some argue that God authored all the hundreds of laws whereas others see more human forces at work. Regardless, Jews within their religion of Judaism sought separation from their neighbors by eating (Kosher food ) selectively, by worshipping (at the Jerusalem Temple) exclusively, and by acting distinctively in many other odd ways. The totality of these arcane lifestyle choices was symbolic, based upon racial divisions and religious ancestry traced back to the founding patriarchs (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses). The issue was that Jesus was upset with officials in his day who had perverted Judaism by undermining the love and truth God most wanted. Jesus’ emphasis was on love, not on brutal, burdening rules. If attaining a visible, ego-driven holiness was the unintended consequence of some religious rules/rituals then what’s sacrificed is the greater goal of connecting with God. Some of the ancient Jews may have been able to achieve both rule holiness and godly lives but Jesus knew that such a model was unsustainable. Religions risk becoming top-heavy, leading to a collapse from within. The history of religion reveals how this process of collapse and renewal has occurred such as when the Buddhist religion (Buddhism) emerged from Hinduism or even when Christianity arose as a reform movement within Judaism. The issue is that when a religion enshrines rigidity and worships rules over virtue then God’s Spirit seeks release, creating new blossoms within faith’s garden.
Many people were raised within churches and traditions where rituals and rules were obligatory. These folks were told that certain rituals and rules were necessary and that they needn’t question why. A version of this mostly unspoken narrative goes like this: “Just do the ritual as you have been told. People who are closer to God have had it all figured out since a long time ago. Show-up and do what you’re told and you might attain heaven despite your rebellious ignorance.” Ouch! This may seem like a bleak situation. One the one hand, we’re burdened to perform rituals and obey rules that we don’t understand yet religious specialists require. On the other hand, we don’t want a knee-jerk reaction lest we risk throwing out the ritual baby with the religious bath water.
Not all those who peddle rules have bad motives. Psychologists and other social scientists know that people will do almost anything to instill order and predictability into life’s confusing chaos. Religious rules meet this deep-seated need. We deceive ourselves if we fail to realize how much effort humans expend to establish a perception of stability and regularity. Humans have an insatiable appetite for structure and organization, often to the extent of causing distractions from a healthy spirituality. Some religious rituals and rules create and impose burdens which, precisely because they seem to come from God, promise to create order, structure, and control. The danger is that many religious rules destroy what they seek to protect. Rather than help people live a better life, they can make things worse by creating unnecessary work or fostering an unhealthy dependence. Much ado about nothing? Some folks argue that we shouldn’t worry because religious rituals and rules are just fluff and puff designed to soothe through predictable, repetitive motion. The problem is that even fluff and puff can become toxic froth rather than the soul food they’re supposed to be.
Jesus realized the problem with how religious rules can kill from within. Jesus’ insights revealed how a servile obedience to rule-based tradition consumes those who embrace them, especially if the greater goals in life are ignored such as love for God and for one another. Jesus’ wisdom warns us against distractions that come from seemingly harmless rituals and rules. Evils arise when the rules we create end-up controlling us (it’s supposed to be the other way around). When Jesus criticized the critics he exposed how their slavish peddling of strict rules undermined the Spirit. The experts had become grotesque through perverting God’s Way.
Defenders of rule-based religion despise the way in which Jesus continues to challenge a mindless progression of religious traditions. Jesus instructs us to be wary of blind religious guides who lead people into a dark, nasty pit. Jesus warns us to avoid the lure of rule-peddling religion. We must be vigilant lest we are destroyed by the RRR (the Ruined Religion Rules). Otherwise, we allow our splendid spiritual creativity to devolve into a nightmarish vision, driven by foolishness such as requiring people to ceremonially wash their hands. We must ask if we are trying to avoid deeper issues by substituting religious rituals and rules for the superb unruliness that is love. Having a clean heart and mind trumps washed hands every time. Sure, getting filth off your hands might advance hygiene but don’t think for a moment that doing so lets you off the hook for thinking and living the love God most wants. God peers inside and sees if what we’re trying to clean on the outside reflects reality on the inside. Let us therefore wash the filth that lay within so that we may be clean from the inside out.