I was recently talking to my nephew Adam, a high school senior in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was telling me about a lad in his study hall who is challenging the school administration on the grounds that his civil rights have been violated. It seems that Adam’s classmate took it upon himself to start a Christian Bible study group during his free period. About six or seven youngster would gather together for a quiet and respectful look at the scriptures. The students were courteous enough not to disturb the other study hall students. No shouted hallelujahs, no hymn singing, no exorcisms. Just a few kids talking softly about their shared faith.
Unfortunately—yeah, you guessed it..!—the school administration ordered the study to disband on the grounds that Bible study on public school property violated the historic separation of church and state. (Personally, I’m a little surprised at this as Colorado Springs is practically the Vatican for Evangelicals!) Adam’s friend is challenging this order, arguing that his Bible study took place during a free period, was not part of the school curriculum, and did not involve school employees. I wish the young man luck.
As much as it brings the barf up into my mouth to admit it, I actually do have to agree with Donald Trump on one point—political correctness has reached the level of the ridiculous in some cases. Madeline Murray O’Hare’s personal aversion to all things spiritual seems to have turned us into a nation of whiners who have forgotten that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. Somebody always has to make an issue out of something, and it looks like we just can’t get away from the risk of a tongue-lashing from the terminally touchy among us.
This brings me to our gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Fourteen (Mark: 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23—and aren’t you glad we’re finally out of John 6?!) The story opens with the scribes and the Pharisees giving Jesus a hard time because they don’t like the disciples’ table manners. These high muckety-mucks of religious authority are ticked off, claiming that the disciples’ not-ritually-washed hands are an affront to the Law of Moses and the tradition of the elders. This criticism gets Jesus’ back up, and the Lord lays into them by saying,
“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (v.8)
And ain’t that always the way? It is an unfortunate characteristic of our humanity that we will cling like a deer tick to the letter of the law while completely avoiding the spirit. Inexplicably, the RCL once again cuts out a key element in this story, verses 9-13 in which Jesus hurls the hypocrisy of his critics back into their smirking teeth. It appears that some of these good religiously observant and pious individuals have dedicated some of their wealth to God (This could be either an offering of livestock as in Leviticus 1:2 or a monetary offering given for a specific purpose as in Numbers 7:13). In and of itself, I’d say this is a pretty darn good thing; however, the Pharisees seem to think that this grand gesture exempted them from looking after their aging parents (an exemption which was specifically reversed in the Mishna after the time of Jesus). Jesus scolds these guys for using a pious motive to neglect a humanitarian imperative to serve the needy.
I’d say that we sinners are still prone to come up with pious reasons to serve our own selfishness. When it comes to making excuses for our prejudices, laziness, and greed, we’re all religious jailhouse lawyers.
Yes, I’d agree that it’s impious to wear cut-off jeans and sports jerseys to church, but it also misses the mark to judge other people by their clothing and forget to welcome them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is immoral to take the life of the unborn. It is equally immoral to subject the post-born to poverty, to deny them adequate shelter, or to refuse them access to healthcare.
It was certainly a sign of piety and respect to allow prayer and Bible reading in public schools, but it is an insult to God to underfund public education, overcrowd classrooms, and cancel school lunch programs.
It is a hallowed constitutional right to allow Americans to defend their lives and property with firearms, and yet it is an outrage to witness endless acts of gun violence without making some attempt to end it.
In this lesson we encounter Jesus as the judge of our actions and attitudes. We can observe all the religious and societal rules we want, but if our hearts aren’t motivated by God’s love, all our judgmental attitudes do is defile.
The challenge in this lesson, as always, is to cast ourselves in the role of the Pharisees and ask what nit-picking rules or platitudes are keeping us from being authentic disciples. What excuses are we making to judge others, withhold forgiveness, or inhibit justice and mercy? The gospel always compels us to look inside. But here’s the good news: we have the gospel, and through it, the judgment of Jesus brings us to repentance, changes our attitudes, and frees us from the bondage of our sins.
Thanks for stopping in, folks.