* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Rules by Which We Live, and What Matters More

Wending our way through the Gospel of Mark, the next several passages are short accounts of healing and conflict with the Jewish religious authorities of the day. (These accounts also appear in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, arranged to suit those authors' purposes.) Jesus heals a paralyzed man and forgives his sins, and the scribes call him a blasphemer. Jesus heals a man's hand on the Sabbath (a day set apart for rest in honor of Yahweh), and the leaders of a Jewish sect start plotting to kill him. In between these healing stories, Jesus is questioned about why he and his companions refuse to follow Jewish customs of avoiding contact with unclean people, honoring days of fasting, and respecting the Sabbath. The author of Mark has Jesus respond with some typical rabbinic sayings: "It isn't the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." "No one pours new wine into old wineskins." "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." These responses -- which were handed down through oral tradition among the Jewish teachers (rabbis) -- reflect something about what the author of Mark was trying to communicate in his portrayal of Jesus.

Pharisees were members of a Jewish sect who devoted their time to nuanced interpretations of Jewish law. Some of the situations in Mark are obviously contrived just so the author can make a point. It was not forbidden for beggars to pick grain and eat it on the Sabbath, for instance, but it provides an opportunity to have Jesus say something the author of Mark deemed important. There were Jewish thinkers who disagreed with Pharisaic interpretations, and there were other sects of Judaism in the first century with their own distinct views. By the time the author of Mark was writing, however, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by Roman military response to a Jewish uprising, and the Pharisees had become a dominant voice among Jews that had been "dispersed" from Jerusalem. Their way of thinking offered the most robust way of living out the Jewish faith in the absence of a temple where legitimate sacrifices could be offered. Thus, when the author of Mark writes of conflict between Jesus and Jewish leaders, he is in effect portraying conflict between the Christian and Pharisaic sects of Judaism in the aftermath of the temple's destruction.

The Christian perspective portrayed in the gospel stories had their roots in rabbinic commentary -- interpretations of the Jewish scriptures by rabbis. There was a distinct spin put on these teachings to be sure, but the words attributed to Jesus by the author of Mark often were not novel. When one looks at the thrust of this collection of stories, the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus is clearly about where one's focus should be in life. The Pharisees had an idea of how one should live -- a set of complex rules that defined as clearly as possible every nuance of righteous living. The Jesus of Mark was interested in something else -- a different, simpler rule of life that focused on other people rather than individual righteousness.

People like rules for more than one reason. Some people like to have a concrete measure of how wonderful they are, and a checklist of rules works well for this. Most people, however, use their own rules as a means of assessing other people. If I make it a rule that I will always obey the speed limit, I not only get to feel great about myself when I follow that rule, I also get to judge all the people around me who do not obey the speed limit. They are wicked, evil, miscreants because they are doing something of which I do not approve. Speed limits are actual laws, but we create our own rules about lots of things: how people should dress, how people should speak, how people should raise their children, what people should do with their money. We have an idea about the right way to handle every aspect of life, even when we don't live up to our own standards. The Pharisees ought to make perfect sense to us, when we think about it. We are constantly judging other people's behavior against our own standards.

The Jesus of the gospels throws a monkey wrench into this habit. Why would we let people wallow in unnecessary shame, when we have the power to forgive them and lift them up? Why would we only spend time with people who agree with us, when we have the opportunity to teach and learn so much more by spending time with people who are different? Why would we only spend time with people who have it all together in their own minds, when we can make the most difference in the lives of people who are desperately searching for their own sense of worth and hope? Why should we adhere to old ways of doing things at the expense of our own well-being and the well-being of other people around us? Of what value are all of our rules if we only use them as weapons?

In these stories, the author of Mark was saying something profound about what he thought Judaism -- and the Christian sect -- should stand for. People matter more than our rules. We rarely see this truth being lived out by churches of any faith in the twenty-first century, and we are most likely personally challenged by the statement. People matter more than our rules. Connecting with other people is more important than judging them and setting ourselves apart. Honoring other people as they are is more valuable than finding reasons not to care about them. Our lives are enriched when we let go of our own contrived mandates about how life ought to be lived and accept ourselves and other people as worthy, capable human beings. People matter more than our rules.

Consider your own rules. How do you judge yourself and other people? What would it be like to set those rules aside and see people as human beings with innate value? What artificial rule could you let go of right now and never miss? For me, rules about how people should drive would be high on the list, and rules about how aware people should be in crowded stores would rank up there, too. The importance we ascribe to insignificant things is just silly. Of course people matter more than our contrived rules. People matter. What an incredibly simple and challenging truth. 

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