Any passage but this one, Lord, was, admittedly, my immediate prayer after being assigned to the story in Mark 7. For me, a fixation on rituals and, in fact, the very same practices that we find the Pharisees obsessing over have, at different points in my life, been actual and debilitating. Obsessive counting, rituals, an overactive imagination, and, most memorably, incessant fears over unwashed hands governed stages of my childhood. In turn, adulthood brought varied manifestations of these obsessions and the development of disordered eating patterns illogically dictating that which is ‘clean.’ The Lord reminds me now that, truly, these once gripping obsessions with actual unclean hands and foods, provide but a glimpse of what we sacrifice when we champion law and tradition over Christ’s freedom and the joy of right relationships.
In this passage, the Pharisees are haughtily litigating religious law-- condemning the disciples’ ‘unclean practices,’ while defending their own righteous ways. Jesus is almost cheeky when he addresses the Pharisees and teachers in verse 9 by saying, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’ We are not free to love the Lord or others when we are tethered to our traditions.
Why is it so easy to villainize the Pharisees for their self-righteousness and to declare their strict observation of the law a futile attempt to earn salvation? Because my contempt for the Pharisees is matched only by my empathy of having been bound by ‘the rules taught by men’ that ‘keep my heart far’ from Him.
Our strivings and rituals keep us from fully experiencing the promises of the Gospel. When our rituals become divorced from His goodness, at their best, these practices do not allow space for grace, and, at their worst, they become a detriment to us and to others. Because we cannot receive his mercy, we struggle to show it to others. Our efforts for holiness and perfection are futile; no amount of hand washing--no numbers, no pounds, no earnings--make us worthy for His love. The Pharisees cling to what they know to be true and are fearful of any loss of control over their ways and their traditions. They may operate under the illusion that they are in control, but truly, they are controlled by the rituals they practice. The results are self-justification and paralysis. Traditions and rituals enslave us, negating the very freedom that we have in Him.
Lord, as we seek genuineness and sincerity of our discipleship, let us abandon our strivings for perfection and come under your perfect authority.
The hyperfocus on traditions and rituals become a barrier to authentic relationships. These practices can be used to create intentional and healthy boundaries and allow relationships to flourish. But, when these rituals supercede the relationship itself, boundaries become walls. The Pharisees and teacher of the law spiritually and physically set themselves apart from others and, ultimately, from God. Self-righteous attitudes hinder our ability to love and serve all those around us, and we sacrifice the joy of fellowship that we could be experiencing at the table. An unhealthy adherence to rituals causes us to turn inward, and we can develop subsequent habits of deceit, envy, insecurity, and shame. ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him unclean.’ As these attributes pour out of our hearts, we become alienated from the people we love the most.
It is hard to account for all that the Pharisees sacrifice in seeking redemption and worth in the laws. But, I can imagine the envy and longing that tugs at their insides as they look upon the disciples--sitting at the table secure in their salvation and so freed to love others. In seeking perfection, the Pharisees forfeit the freedom and real joy at that table.
Lent calls us to turn towards the Lord, which spurs us to love outward. He is at the center of any good that comes out of us. As we relinquish control and discontinue our strivings for self-righteousness, we are able to engage in right relationships with others and more fully experience the grace and freedom that beckons to us.
Lord, as wait prepare for your resurrection, remind us that you are our only hope of freedom and create in us a longing to join others at the table in celebration.