+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a goodly amount of ancient history in this morning’s sermon, and some of it is revisionist history, so bear with me. It does have a point, but I find the history itself pretty interesting, too.
It is my perhaps unpopular, though I assure you informed, opinion that the Pharisees have a bad rap. As Christians in the twenty-first century, most of us probably only know that they were Jesus’ interlocutors and, as such, generally ended up on the wrong side of the religious issues discussed in the New Testament. A look into the religious landscape of the 1st Century A.D., however, suggests a more charitable reading may be appropriate. The Pharisees, unlike that other group we hear so much about in the Gospels, the Saducees, believed firmly that God would resurrect the faithful on the day of judgment and strove to live faithfully because they did believe that their actions had eternal consequences. They developed a very compelling form of biblical interpretation called “midrash”, in which the moral and religious issues in one’s own life could serve as a lens through which to read the Old Testament. St. Paul, himself a recovering Pharisee, used this practice extensively in his letters. Most importantly, the Pharisees’ insight that the worship of the God of Israel could be undertaken by the faithful Jew in the absence of a temple in Jerusalem, that all people could pray despite their physical location, was unique among 1st Century Jews, and it permitted Judaism to continue after the Romans destroyed the temple in A.D. 70.
So, there you have my apology for the Pharisees. Obviously, they didn’t get everything right, though, which is why they got into so many squabbles with Jesus. The primary mistake they made in today’s Gospel, when they shamed Jesus and his disciples for failing to follow what they called “the traditions of the elders” by eating with dirty hands, was the logical consequence of another essential quality of the religion of the Pharisees, called “hedging the Torah”.
The “traditions of the elders” which the Pharisees mention in today’s Gospel were collections of sayings of Pharisee teachers, or rabbis, stretching from the 6th Century B.C. up through Jesus’ own day. From one such collection, the Perkei Avot, came the following:
Moses received the Law on Sinai and delivered it to Joshua; and Joshua to the Elders; and the Elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be not hasty in judgment; Bring up many disciples; and, Make a hedge for the Torah.
To “hedge the Torah”, the laws found in the first five books of the Old Testament, was to build a metaphorical fence around those laws. Like “hedging one’s bets” in a game of cards, “hedging the Torah” made everyone feel safer, because they weren’t getting close enough to the letter of the law to break it. This might be confusing, so here’s an example: the Torah, or Law, forbade one cooking a goat in its own mother’s milk. The precise reason for this law is a little confusing, but it likely comes from a belief in the ancient Near East that doing so would have an emotional effect on the goat’s mother such that she would no longer produce milk or reproduce, leading to a very poor yield in livestock over time. By the time the Pharisees got to the law, however, its initial intent had been forgotten. Nobody really knew why such a law had been made or what precisely it meant. Perhaps there was a deeper, hidden principle underlying the law. In any event, just to be safe, the Pharisees decided that nobody should eat any meat mixed with dairy. Cheeseburgers were, thenceforth, right out. So, they made a very specific prohibition much broader in scope since they didn’t understand it, in order to have assurance that they were above reproach.
It is a similar situation in today’s Gospel. There were certainly laws in the Torah dictating a certain degree of sanitation to the end of what today we would call “public health”, but all of the hand washing and purification of “cups, pots, and bronze kettles” which the Gospel reading mentions were extensions of these laws.
Far from rejecting the law, which he believed to be God-given and salutary, Jesus was being faithful to the command Moses himself gave in today’s Old Testament reading: “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it.”
Religion, “true religion” as today’s collect calls it, is a good thing, and Jesus knew it. Pardon my apparent stuffiness, but I believe it to be far more salubrious than half-baked philosophies and warm-fuzzy feelings, because it gives us a connection to a way proven by countless generations to worship God and experience His transcendent love and glory. Tradition is a good thing too, for the same reason, so long as the tradition finds its motivating force in the true worship of God.
So Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees was neither anti-nomian (that is, a rejection of the law) nor anti-religious. It was, rather, a call to true religion. It was a perhaps none-too-gentle indictment of what the prophet Isaiah called “teaching human precepts as doctrine”, but it was not a rejection of doctrine.
So, the task before us, then, is determining what is human precept and what is true religion. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult question, and I’m not smart enough to answer it entirely should I have a lifetime to ponder it, much less in the next two minutes. I firmly believe that the Canon of Scripture, and the Creeds, and even the Book of Common Prayer fall into the “true religion” category rather than the “human precept” category, and it’s through the fruit that I’ve seen these texts bear in the hearts of the faithful and in my own life that have led me to that conclusion.
Both St. Paul and St. James write about the good fruit which is borne by the faithful, and I think that to some degree religion can be judged by the same principle. Does one’s religion lead one to hypocrisy and pride, or does it lead to obedience and humility? Does one’s religion lead to spiritual elitism or does it bear fruit in spreading the gospel with love and in “caring for orphans and widows in their distress” to use St. James’ litmus test? Does one’s religion lead one to an obsession with rules, or does it lead to loving one’s neighbour and worshipping one’s God with a pure heart? Are we as individuals bearing good fruit? Is Trinity Church bearing good fruit? Are the Diocese of Ohio and Episcopal Church, USA bearing good fruit? These are a lot of questions, and the answer to each is probably somewhere between an absolute “yes” and an absolute “no”, but I’ll leave it to each of you to ponder them. And as you answer these questions for yourselves, let a little snippet of today’s collect be your refrain: “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.