When the Rules Supersede the Rules
Preparing for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany: One Day before Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: Psalm 119:1-8
Old Testament: Deuteronomy 30:1-9a
Gospel: Matthew 15:1-9
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God (Matthew 15:1-6).
When I was a boy, we were never allowed to play with poker cards. My siblings and I played Old Maid, but cards with hearts, spades, clubs, and diamonds were out of the question. The reason was that the fundamentalist church I was in rejected gambling as an acceptable practice (for good reasons, I think). Even though, I would never gamble as a kid as it would never have occurred to me, poker cards suffered from guilt by association. The evils of gambling had spread in my parents’ minds to the playing cards themselves. It is certainly true that one can gamble playing Old Maid, but that never seemed to occur to anyone.
The Pharisaic leadership in Jesus’ day had the same problem. In their desire to keep the law (a good thing), they had devised practices and behaviors that kept the faithful from crossing the line into unfaithfulness to the Torah. They put a hedge or fence around the law. The reasoning was that if a person kept the stricter regulation, they would not cross the boundary of the actual commandment. It is like believing that if one does not use poker cards for entertainment, they can be sure not to gamble, or if one does not want to break the 70 mph speed limit, one should drive 65 or even 60 mph.
The problem was that over time those stricter regulations (not mentioned in the Torah) took on authoritative status, so that if one stepped over the Pharisee’s fence, it was the same thing as violating the Torah itself. To continue the modern comparisons: a state trooper stopping you for going over 65 mph on a 70 mph highway or someone being accused of gambling simply by using poker cards to play Blackjack.
Jesus’ problem with the religious leaders was not that they desired to keep the law, but they had elevated their fence, their hedge to the status of law. It is interesting to note that Jesus never refers to that fence as the law, but as the Pharisees’ “traditions.” In fact, Jesus accuses them of violating the law to keep their traditions. Their fence superseded the law of Moses and therefore nullified it.
One of the human temptations is that in order to get things right, we can get them wrong in our zealousness, and in so doing we end up majoring in the minors. We make a mountain out of a molehill. I have known people who insist that the King James Version of the Bible can be the only version of the Word of God in English. I remember when I was a college student getting chastised by a women one evening at church because she saw that I had written notes in the margin of my Bible and that desecrated the sacred pages of the Word of God. I have known Christians who look down their noses at other Christians because they dance or occasionally drink alcohol or even go to the theater. There is nothing in the Bible that says believers should avoid these things, but in their attempt to avoid behavior that truly is sinful, they have made a fence that functionally becomes the biblical law for them. In so doing, they miss the point of the law in the first place.
So before we are too hard on the Pharisees for their legalisms, we need to heed the words of Jesus about taking the log out of our eye before pointing out the speck in the cornea of someone else (Matthew 7:1-5).
Let’s make sure that in keeping the right rules, we don’t make wrong ones that supersede why God gave us the law in the first place.
PRAYER: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
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