Tuesday, August 25th Mark 7:6-8

He said to them, “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

These are harsh words and easily delivered in a harsh manner. Jesus has indicted, not only the Pharisees who are complaining about the lackadaisical manner in which the disciples of Jesus ignore the rules around ritual washing, but each and every one of us who have experienced our lips mouthing the words of the liturgy while our hearts were harboring memories and plans far short of God’s good intentions for our lives.

This is the danger of religion. This is the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, temptation to get the rites right while ignoring the deeper implications of our beliefs, our attitudes and our actions. An hour a week, a few bucks in the plate, and we’ve bought God off for another week. Isaiah is right to call us on this and Jesus is right to bring it back up.

Now comes the harder part: How can we tell when we’re doing it?

It is one thing to hear “teaching human precepts as doctrines”, the harder work is telling the difference between the two. In the real world of our faith, the difference emerges less as a matter of applying the letter of the law as it does in mutual conversation. The work of theologians today (and scribes and Pharisees then) was to engage in a lifetime of listening to the law and then reasoning out its implications for life. Always with a measure of humility and awareness of the temptation to justify ourselves.

Tomorrow Jesus will give us an example of how we can ignore the commandment of God to suit ourselves. Later in the week he will help us see what is so close to us that we are often blinded from seeing it. But for today we do well simply to be reminded that there is a difference between “human traditions” and the “commandments of God.”

What might be absolute common sense to us (human tradition), might be very incompatible with the “commandments of God.” What seems crystal clear to us (thou shalt not kill) can suddenly get very cloudy in the midst of questions around self defense, war, the justice system or medical decisions.

Sadly, we don’t always get these distinctions right. The critics of the Christian faith are quick to point out all of the ways through the years that the church has operated in very unloving, unjust ways. Guilty as charged. But the game isn’t over yet. We haven’t quit playing and trying our best to be faithful in the face of the challenges of life, with our own sin whistling in our ears.

What keeps us honest along the way, or at least striving to be so, are reminders like this from Jesus – we aren’t fooling God.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, keep stirring up the right questions within and among us. Keep pushing us toward greater honesty, deeper faithfulness, and more integrity in our life with you and one another. Forgive us for the times we give you lip service and encourage us to serve you and others in righteousness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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