Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 † Psalm 15 † James 1:17-27 †
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
It is probably not new to most of you that the 16th century reformer Martin Luther was not a fan of the book of James. In fact, he wanted to remove it from the New Testament canon. He didn’t think it belonged in the Bible. He didn’t think it should carry the force and authority of scripture.
Now, it may be news to more of you as to why he actually wanted to see it removed. It wasn’t because James was too focused on good works as a standard for true faith or true religion. It wasn’t because he saw it as being untrue to the arc of the Old Testament scriptures, including this text we have from Deuteronomy which is commentary on what it means to attend to the heart of the law—the commandments given to Moses on Sinai that were the heartbeat of Hebrew faith and the center of Jesus’ bible.
It wasn’t because he disagreed with James’ powerful summary that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God... is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
Luther was troubled by James because he understood that its focus on the behaviors or practices of faith could too easily be used to hammer judgment on others. He was troubled by it because he saw in its forthright call to right living an opening for manipulation, abuse and self-justification that could all too easily ignore the birthright of faith—the astonishing, absolutely underserved love of God to which all human religious practice is a response. In a word, grace, which stood at the very heart of Luther’s religious sensibility. Faith as gift. Life as gift. The sacred worth of all creation, of each and every one of us as the gift of a creator who is Love beyond measure and understanding and any ration of goodness we could ever construct.
Luther was troubled by James precisely for the reasons revealed in Jesus’ encounter in Mark with these hypocritical Pharisees: “What’s the matter with your followers, Jesus? Look at them. You should be ashamed. They pay no attention to the good works, the good behavior that makes for God’s true people. They are eating with unwashed hands, they aren’t doing all the things this good tradition of ours has established as the right way; they are paying no attention to the law of God. ”They are not conforming to what we have said makes for proper religious practice.
It should be no surprise to us that we might gloss over this section of Mark as we read. It makes so little sense to us in our own context. All these rules about washing have been washed away by time. They are as irrelevant and obscure to us now as perhaps the controversy regarding hanging copies of the ten commandments in court rooms or taking a knee at football games would be to another time.
The lectionary reading does not include the section about honoring father and mother, but I’ve included it to help illustrate this point. Jesus is fully aware of the ways of the human heart that are inclined to self-justification, to elevating ourselves above others, to working the loopholes. And he is fully aware of the ways in which our inclinations tend to misshapen our institutions and our religious practices.
So Jesus offers this example of hypocrisy as a way of illustrating, although it takes a little work for us to understand it. The commandment says to honor father and mother. A practical application of this in the day, given there were no 401k retirement accounts or Social Security or health care, was to support community elders who could no longer work. The solution for community well-being was embedded in the law; it was what James understood: the heart of religion is to care for others in their distress or, better, to keep them from distress. Honor your father and mother.
The Pharisees had cynically turned this on its head, abandoning those most in need by claiming they were pursuing a higher law, offering what should go to those in need as Corban—an offering to God that, it turns out, didn’t really go to God at all, but to their own further enrichment and protection.
Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation is a little more direct in Jesus’ critique of the pharisees:
[Jesus] went on, “Well, good for you. You get rid of God’s command so you won’t be inconvenienced in following the religious fashions! Moses said, ‘Respect your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone denouncing father or mother should be killed.’ But you weasel out of that by saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to say to father or mother, ‘Gift! What I owed you I’ve given as a gift to God,’ thus relieving yourselves of obligation to father or mother. You scratch out God’s Word and scrawl a whim in its place.”[i]
It is no secret that religion holds great power. It can be used for remarkable good, but we also know it can be twisted for profound evil. Our brothers and sisters within the Catholic tradition are once again wrestling with this as a Philadelphia grand jury has detailed the distressing news of decades of sexual abuse of more than 1000 children in six dioceses by more than 300 priests, and the role of church leaders in covering up the atrocities and enabling the behavior.
Sadly, this is only one of many examples we could cite of religion that has not served those Luther and James and Jesus and we understand it serves. We have many of our own stories, big and small, closer to home, of course.
After the release of the Philadelphia report, many Catholic priests struggled to address the revelations. NPR ran a story on Monday August 20th, about a congregation in suburban Atlanta where the priest spoke to his congregation about the abuse.[ii] Susan Reynolds, a longtime Catholic and professor of Catholic studies at Emory University related the story.
After what Reynolds said was a powerful homily in which the priest began by saying, I’m sorry, he went on to cite the church’s need for reform led by laypeople. When the priest finished and then turned to sit down, all of a sudden, in about the fifth row, a dad stood up.
As you can imagine, this is not something that you do in the middle of a Catholic Mass.
The man stood up and he simply said, how? How do we do that?
The most remarkable thing to Reynolds, as she witnessed this, was that the priest did not say, you know, we can talk about this later. The ushers didn’t descend on him. Some in other rows mumbled, perhaps more to themselves and their own discomfort than anything, that he sit down. But as the moment unfolded, it became apparent to everyone that this man was interrupting the liturgy in a way that was prophetic and humble and deeply authentic and sincere.
The priest turned back around and looked the dad in the eye and offered a response—a humble and halting and thoughtful, and surely inadequate response.
The dad said, you know, I have a son. He’s going to make his First Communion. What do I tell him?
And the priest said, well, what’s your son’s name? And the father responded. And in the midst of this most difficult and imperfect moment in which no adequate answers were available and no “fix” could undo what has been done, compassion and humility and love were incarnated. For all the grief and unspoken sorrow and suffering, something holy and full of possibility broke in.
The Vatican released a letter from Pope Francis acknowledging the failure of those in positions of power and authority within the institution, saying the church has failed to address the abuse of children. He wrote, we showed no care for the little ones. We abandoned them.
True religion is the antithesis of working the loopholes. It is humility and compassion. It is service and repentance and forgiveness. Luther said, we are all beggars; we are all poor; we are all in need of being taken in.
If we hope to find our way when so much seems to be misshapen and manipulated and mangled, we will do well to remember this and to remember that the heart of this Gospel is love.
[i] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005), Mk 7.
[ii] “One Congregation’s Question of Faith Following the Pennsylvania Clergy Report.” August 20, 2018 on All Things Considered. Retrieved August 31, 2018 from https://www.npr.org/2018/08/20/640329293/one-congregations-question-of-faith-following-the-pennsylvania-clergy-report.
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