One way to approach scripture is by asking ourselves two questions.
âWhatâs going on here?â is the first. It forces us to delve a little deeper, to see if we can get a handle on the passage in question and really understand it.
The second question is âWhat does that mean for us?â This question is often the more difficult because, of course, it forces us to consider our own ways of thinking and acting in light of the gospel values.
Whatâs going on here? Jesus is having another one of his run-ins with the Pharisees. Many Christians see the Pharisees as the âbad guys,â always wearing the black hats. This is not true. The Pharisees were a group of pious Jews who put great emphasis on beliefs and practices of the prophets and adapted these to their own times. They sought to make the love of God and love of neighbor the chief commandments, the essence of the Torah from which all else flowed. That sounds quite a bit like Jesus himself, doesnât it? The Pharisees were very concerned about preserving Jewish religious and cultural life in the midst of Hellenistic Roman society, and so they emphasized the laws concerning food, purity, and group practices. These practices served to keep Jews united to one another and distinct from the dominant gentile society.
Many Pharisees of Jesusâ time went one step further to make their way of life even more distinctive. They drew on an old tradition of using the priestly laws concerning purity, food, and marriage for all Jews, not just for the priests. These purity regulations, which may seem mysterious and strange to us today, regularized life and separated that which was normal and life-giving from that which was abnormal or ambiguous. The Pharisees with whom Jesus contends attempted to keep themselves in a state of purity at all times as would a priest in the Temple. They were scrupulous in their behavior and took great care not to come in contact with any source of defilement.
The gentiles presented a danger to those who would keep themselves pure, but another danger to purity was the presence of the âpeople of the land.â These were the ordinary folk who had neither the time, money, nor inclination to keep the priestly laws of purity. They were unable to tithe properly and their food â what little they had â was not properly sanctified and could not be eaten by the Pharisees. âThe people of the landâ were poor and lived a subsistence existence; they were probably too busy trying to keep food on the table to worry about what kind of food it was and if it had been properly prepared.
A word about the dietary laws today: Jews who keep these laws do so as a spiritual practice. They may be inconvenient at times, but they are not burdensome to them. Like spiritual disciplines we might practice â daily prayer, fasting or abstaining from certain foods â they serve to integrate our beliefs with daily life, to give shape to our everyday lives by living according to our principles.
In todayâs gospel lesson, Jesus is not criticizing those who try faithfully to keep the Law. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks of the Torah as good and God-given. Here he is speaking about those who forget what really mattered in it: loving God and loving your neighbor. He is speaking about the big things: justice and mercy and faithfulness. He is speaking to the experts, the ones who were so good at telling other people what they should be doing. And he is speaking to those who work really hard at keeping the letter of the law while forgetting about the spirit of the law.
Tom Wright, a Biblical commentator, wrote that âGenerations of preachers have used this passage to criticize church leaders who like dressing up and being seen in public. Thatâs fair enough.â
But this is about more than fancy clothes and good seats. Jesus criticized the Pharisees because they didnât practice what they preached; their lives did not reflect the law that they continually debated; they didnât live out what they taught. While Jesusâ rebuke seems general, as though all scribes and Pharisees were guilty of love of place and honor, we know the rabbis themselves condemned such behavior. We know that leaders of every generation â second temple Judaism, the early church, the church through the ages, and the church today â have not lived out their vocations in congruence with the values of the gospel. So the real audience is not the Pharisees, but the disciples and, by extension, us; Jesus is talking to his church and especially to its leaders.
Remember who it is that is speaking in our gospel lesson. It is Christ Jesus, who, as we read in Philippians, âemptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.â Remember also, that Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is Tuesday, the Tuesday following the triumphal entry. He has returned to the Temple after casting out the animal buyers and sellers and overturning the tables of the money changers. He must have known that his time was short, that confrontation was ahead. He has just a little time left to teach his disciples, to help them to practice what they will preach.
Kathleen Norris, in her book, The Cloister Walk, writes of the congruence between monastic practice and the discipline of writing. After giving a poetry reading to a community of Trappists, she writes:
âI told the monks that I had come to see both writing and monasticism as vocations that require periods of apprenticeship and formation. Prodigies are common in mathematics, but extremely rare in literature, and, I add, âAs far as I know, there are no prodigies in monastic life.ââ
We know, from our life in the Christian community, that this is true, not just for monastics or writers, but for all of us. There are no prodigies in the Christian life; all of us are apprentices; all of us are in need of conversion; all of us require formation. Thatâs why we come together, week by week, to be nourished by word and sacrament. Thatâs why we have preaching and teaching. Thatâs why we gather together as a community of faith. We are not prodigies, we are fellow travelers on the journey of faith. We are here to help each other, for we all journey together.