Rules, Regulations, and the Christian Life -- A Lectionary Reflection
and the Christian Life
and the Christian Life
Do we need rules and regulations to govern our lives? Or should we be free to make our own rules? Those are the kinds of questions that are permeating the political realm. As the election cycle nears its climax, we hear some politicians claim that there too many regulations and these regulations hurt businesses and raise the cost of products for consumers. On the other hand, there are those who say that that if we water down regulations then unscrupulous corporations and individuals will harm the citizenry. Do we really want to weaken the clean air act?
It’s interesting that some of the political talk reflects theological perspectives, even though they do so unwittingly. Libertarian types seem to have a rather view of humanity perfectibility. In other words, it would seem that they believe that humans are by nature good and just need to be set free to do what comes naturally. Those who prefer strong regulations seem to have a rather Augustinian or Calvinist view of humanity. Since humans, left to their own devices have a tendency to harm one another, then we need strong laws to keep them in line.
I’m not going to resolve the debate over the nation’s regulatory situation, though I tend to believe that we’re not as perfect as we’d to think we are, so at some rules are probably necessary! But, while rules and regulations are necessary – and we can have a debate over which kinds of regulations are necessary – is it possible that rules and regulations can become ends in themselves? And if so, does this lead us to look for loopholes? And therefore, we become hypocrites ourselves?
The texts designated for this week, along with some that will follow in the weeks to come, focus on what it means to live the Christian life. Micah 6:8 might not be part of the lectionary choices for the week, but the question posed by that prophet fits the theme – what does God desire of us? How should we live our lives? What are the expectations? In answer to this question the readings from Deuteronomy, James, and Mark suggest that actions speak louder than words. Don’t just sit around and talk about living for Jesus – live for Jesus.
Let’s begin our conversation with the reading from Deuteronomy 4. In the verses prior to this reading, we find Moses learning that after forty years of leading Israel in the desert, he wouldn’t get to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. He could get a glimpse of the Land, but Joshua would get the call to lead the nation into this new land. Now, in Deuteronomy 4, Moses, knowing this is his last opportunity to address the nation, begins his statement. He reminds Israel that they’ve been given Laws – regulations and case laws – that will guide them as they enter into the land and possess it. He tells them not to add anything to this law or take anything away from it. But instead, live according to these Laws that the LORD had given them. By living by these Laws, they would give a witness to the nations, who would see in them wisdom and insight. No nation, Moses says to them, is as close to their gods as Israel is to the LORD (note here the presence of what some call henotheism – Israel has YHWH as its God, but other nations have other gods; it’s not yet a pure monotheism). And no nation has laws like this Law. Remember these Laws, for they define who you are. They offer you a way of life that is pleasing to God and witnesses to the nations that God is just and faithful. And as the nation goes forward into this new land, the Law will remind them of their relationship with God and the expectations God has for them and for the generations that follow. By keeping these laws, they also pass on the story of who they are as a people, so that no one forgets.
For Moses rules and regulations aren’t a bad thing, they’re a good thing. They help us live our lives in a way that honors the God who calls us into existence. They’re designed to create a people. You call this set of Laws the Constitution of the People of Israel.
Rules and regulations, of course, can become ends in themselves. This often happens as time goes on and we forget why the laws or rules were instituted. They’ve taken on a life of their own. This happens all the time in churches, especially churches that have a long history. This is the kind of situation Jesus faces in Mark 7. He gets into a debate with a group of Pharisees, a group of Jewish leaders that hold to a strict observance to the Law as a sign of faithfulness to God. But, in this passage, as Mark lays it out, the Law, which in Deuteronomy 4 serves as a reminder that God is faithful, has become an end in itself. In this conversation, it seems as if the Law no longer points to God, but instead serves to draw circles that make it clear who is in and who is not – they have become boundary markers that exclude rather than include.
The religious leaders are scandalized because Jesus’ disciples aren’t following the rules about washing their hands in an appropriate fashion. It’s not really an issue of hygiene, as if these laws governing hand washing were the same as those notices found in restrooms that tell employees to wash their hands before going back to work. You’d think this wouldn’t be necessary, but apparently we need to be told! No, the issue isn’t one of hygiene, it’s a symbolic action – it’s a question of being ritually pure. In this passage Jesus suggests that their concern for hand washing was overly focused on externals. The issue here isn’t the cleanliness of the hands, but the cleanliness of the heart – and Jesus seems to think that the external had overcome the internal, and the law became an end in itself. Just a little cleanser will do the job – except that the problem has to do with the heart not the hands. There is a certain psychology at work here – Richard Beck speaks of “disgust psychology,” which involves being concerned about contaminants and making sure that we’re not contaminated.
Disgust psychology prompts us to think about evil as if it were a virus or a polluting object. When we do this the logic of contamination is imported into moral discourse and judgment. For example, as noted earlier, we begin to worry about contact. In the domain of food aversion contact with a polluting object is a legitimate concern. But fears concerning contact might not be appropriate or logical in dealing with moral issues or social groups. Worse, a fear of contact might promote antisocial behavior (e.g., social exclusion) on our part. [Beck, Richard. Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, (p. 26). Cascade Books, Kindle Edition].
We can, through ritual fashion or through exclusive behavior, ward off the contaminants, so that we can remain pure.
It would seem that Jesus isn’t convinced by this psychology. He recognizes that the danger isn’t posed by outside sources, but from the heart. He’s not Lockean in his psychology, believing that the environment determines our behavior. Rather, he seems to think that when we do evil, there’s a reason that’s internal to us. The contaminant is inside us, not outside of us. He also seems to think that when we focus on external defenses, we end up looking like hypocrites. We don’t do as we say. Or, as is so often true, we focus on the little things and forget the weightier things of the law. We get focused on how people dress and forget to care for the least among us. So in a rather bold way, Jesus calls them out, and reminds them that what makes a person unclean isn’t what they eat or how they eat, but what comes out afterwards (I’ll leave that to your imagination).
From the heart comes all manner of sexual sins, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness. Although Mark lacks a “Sermon on the Mount,” the point here is the same as there – evil starts within. It’ can’t be caught from unwashed hands, but it can spread from unwashed hearts. These are the contaminants that truly make one unclean – not unwashed hands. But thinking more broadly, Jesus, like the prophets, offers a message of mercy rather than sacrifice. And as Beck notes (though the context he has in mind is different from this one):
No doubt this is exactly how the Pharisees experienced Jesus: as a religious liberal showing disrespect to authority and tradition and flaunting the purity codes by eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” [Beck, Unclean (p. 61).]
I’m choosing to end with James 1, because this brief letter is focused on living a life before God that emerges from a clean heart. Martin Luther was concerned about James because he didn’t see much of the gospel in it. In his reading, grace seemed an afterthought with works in the foreground. Luther was concerned about what that problem of “works righteousness,” but if we read James closely we should see that such a concern is unwarranted. James isn’t counseling us to work hard to impress God. Rather, James is concerned that our faith should offer some tangible evidence that it’s real. As for the question of grace, James is quite clear – “every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above.” These gifts come from the Father whose character doesn’t change. Therefore, the community James writes to is the first crop of the harvest. God acted in their midst first, providing gifts, so that the people of God might bear fruit.
As with Jesus, James understands that from the heart comes acts of evil. He focuses on listening before speaking (training the heart to hear the other) and recognizes that an “angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” I need to note here that I recently learned that in the world of community organizing the call to action often begins with anger at the injustices present in the world. Obviously, this is a different form of anger, or at least it’s an anger that leads in a very different direction. Rather than leading to justice, this kind of anger – a narcissistic form of anger – leads to wickedness. It’s that internal disposition that leads us away from God. But this needn’t be our reality. Instead, we can welcome the word from God that is implanted in the heart, a word that transforms the inner being.
How does this happen, well – be doers of the word not just hearers. Hearkening back to Deuteronomy and the rationale for law, James suggests that if we hear but don’t put into practice, we forget who we are. Doing the Word doesn’t earn God’s love, but it does represent the fact that it made an impression. And by putting this word, this law of freedom, into action, they (we) are blessed. So what is pure and faultless religion or devotion? What defines a true relationship with God? What happens when we don’t merely hear, but also do? This is the answer: “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.”
Caring for widows and orphans represents the positive action of faith, but what about this contamination from the world? Should we remover ourselves from engagement with the world? Should we move to the hills and set up camp far from the realities of life? No, that’s not the point. In this case world has to do with a different sort of law, one that is greedy and self-serving, it is the law of sin and death, and James says – beware of this kind of contamination. It’s not the contamination that comes from outside due to poor hygiene. It’s the contamination that happens on the inside.
May we be cleansed on the inside so that we might show forth the fruit of the Spirit!