September 2, 2012
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Søren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish philosopher, was fond of saying that, “Reading the bible is like looking into a mirror.” The bible does not so much speak about the characters that are in its stories as it speaks about us. So every time we approach a biblical passage we need to keep telling ourselves, “This passage is speaking about me.”
This is very important for us to remember as we listen to today’s gospel, because in today’s gospel Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees. But if we remember Kierkegaard’s admonition, Jesus is not so much criticizing the Pharisees as he is criticizing us. The best way to understand today’s gospel is to approach it with the conviction: We are the Pharisees.
Now two things happen when we take this step. First of all, we grow in sympathy for the Pharisees. If their problem is our problem, we approach them with an attitude that is less quick to judge. This leads to a second fact. When we look at the situation of the Pharisees, we realize that they are not bad people. They are just trying to do what is right. Like Jesus, they honor the law. Like Jesus, they would reject all of those evil actions that Jesus lists at the end of the gospel: unchastity, murder, theft, adultery, greed, malice, deceit. All of these evils the Pharisees, like Jesus, would oppose.
But the Pharisees are also concerned about something else: hand-washing. Now, there is nothing wrong with hand-washing. Hand-washing is a good thing. Steris has made a fortune through it. And there is no reason to believe that Jesus was opposed to hand-washing. But hand-washing was not as important as the weightier issues of the law. So when Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and us, it is because at times we confuse lesser things with the most important things. We are not bad people. But sometimes we give too much attention and energy to things that are less important. In doing this we can miss what truly matters.
This can happen in our relationships. We might love someone but want them to change. We might want a spouse, child, or friend to be more organized, more prompt, more responsible. All of these things are good things. But they are not the most important things. If we become fixated on these lesser matters it is possible that we will not recognize the deeper gifts that are also in the person we love: generosity, faithfulness, or a sense of thanksgiving. Because we choose to emphasize the lesser things, we run the risk of harming the relationship.
This distortion also applies to our role as citizens. As we approach voting in the upcoming election, it is easy to fixate on one-liners and misstatements that are promoted in political advertising. It is easy to unwittingly follow the recommendation of a group or political party or be impressed with the likeability of a particular candidate. All of these things have significance but they are not as important as carefully examining the values that a candidate espouses and whether those values conform to the teaching of Christ. They are not as important as prayerfully discerning which men and women will provide the best leadership for our government.
This truth also applies to our own view of ourselves. All of us have at times fallen short, some of us have failed in significant ways that have hurt our family and our career. Such mistakes and their consequences have a bearing upon our lives and we must take them seriously. But our flaws are not as important as the inherent dignity that God has placed in each one of us as a son or daughter. When we fixate on our failures we can miss the invitation of our merciful God who forgives us and calls on us to begin anew and build a new future.
We are the Pharisees. We allow what is less important to cloud what is essential. We allow the lesser goods in our life to rule the greater. We are not bad people. But at times we let less important desires, ideas and failures dictate what we believe and how we act. The good news is that when Jesus criticizes us in today’s gospel, he does not do so to condemn us. He rather offers us an opportunity. There is still time to set things right and allow what is truly important to guide what is less important. With God’s grace, we can put first things first. And once we focus on what is truly important, we can discern within it God’s will for our lives.