If You Want to Know…, Proper 17 (B) – 1997
August 31, 1997
If you want to know what’s about to happen in an Episcopal worship service, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the Collect of the Day. It gets that name because it “collects” the main idea of the day’s worship. Today, when we prayed for God to “increase in us true religion,” we were being prepared to hear about the contrast between the true religion of Jesus and the false religion that reigned in his day. The Pharisees, in their zeal for Judaism, had turned their religion from a means into an end, from an affair of the heart to an outward form of external observance.
Jesus was frustrated with the Pharisees, but I don’t believe he held them in the contempt that many do today. Among the Jews of his day, they were the most faithful. Their religious system was designed to release the worship of the true God from the confines of the Temple and make it more accessible to all people their daily lives. They wanted to fulfill Jeremiah’s prophecy:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
It’s a high ideal and they did their best to fulfill it. With the best of intentions, they applied the law to every aspect of life, and most of all, they were scrupulous about honoring the food which they received from God. God had brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey, and they gratefully took to heart what the Lord commanded them to do in return.
give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God…observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!”
But something went terribly wrong. They were not respected as a wise and discerning people. They were treated with contempt, and they suffered under the yoke of Roman oppression. Jesus said they fulfilled, not Jeremiah’s prophecy, but Isaiah’s: “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.”
We often diagnose the Pharisees’ problem by making a distinction between law and gospel. The Pharisees, we say, practiced law, while Christians are free from the law. We are saved by hearing and believing the good news of Jesus Christ. This is a false distinction. The Law and religion are good gifts from God, and we are meant to practice them diligently. Both Paul and Jesus affirm that. But like all of God’s good gifts they are subject to use or abuse, and they are abused when they’re not practiced in the context of love.
The trouble for the Pharisees was that their scrupulosity about observing the law led them to depend, not upon God, but on their own ability to channel their lives into certain predictable routines. That led them to abuse the law by using it to set themselves apart as better than other people. The name “Pharisees” means “separated ones.” Perhaps the contempt they’d experienced from others led them to be contemptuous in return.
Was Mark snickering as he explained the Pharisee’s religion to his Roman readers? They “do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.” It sounds like Episcopalians ending up in hell for eating meat with their salad fork.
But it really isn’t funny, least of all to those who seek to discover a true religion. If we’re honest we must admit that no matter how hard we try we can’t get it right, and that is bound to leave us fearful. If we miss the mark often enough, we may fear that we are headed for a bad end. In despair, we may seek reassurance in comparing ourselves to others. That’s very thin ice because we can only compare our insides and their outsides. In that case, the best we can hope for is a dull and formal religion in which we become like Anthony Trollope’s Miss Thorne, whose “virtues were too numerous to describe, and not sufficiently interesting to deserve description.”
So as we prepare to gear up for the Fall, perhaps it’s time to think about renewing your covenant with God. Why not set aside some time, and meditate on ways that you can be a more faithful and obedient Christian. The law and the rules are a gift from God, but they are not meant as an end in themselves. They can be, however, instruments for expressing your love for God. That is the first commandment. Love God with everything you’ve got.
There is, however, another gift, as important as the law, which shapes inward obedience the way the law shapes outward obedience. For the covenant you make is not just a covenant with God; it is also a covenant with God’s people. In marking his covenant with us God gave us the laws to obey, but he also gave us a community in which to obey them. And that is the real difficulty of faith.
Someone once defined community as the place where that person you least want to live with lives. When that person moves away, someone just as bad takes their place. Some of us think that we can love Christ, even if we can’t stand other Christians, but that is far away from true religion as the Pharisees. True religion produces love of neighbor. First John says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters,’ are liars.
So, as you consider renewing your covenant with God, it is important to strive to be more faithful in your prayer, work, study, giving, service and personal discipline. Those things will make you a better person and help you love God. But you must also remember there is a second commandment that is equal to the first. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And God has given you a precious gift to help you keep this commandment. That gift is the people in your life that you really cannot stand. Without them you cannot truly learn to love God. Let us pray, then, brothers and sisters, that we may have the humility to forgive them as we have been forgiven and to love them as Jesus has loved us. That is the way of the true religion for which we have prayed.
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