* 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, June 18, 2013

Mark 7:1-23: Giving Up Righteousness in Favor of Connection

Returning to the gospel narrative of Mark, we find the character of Jesus confronted by his caricaturish nemeses, "the Pharisees and teachers of the law." As one would expect, Jesus not only repels their accusation, but turns their words and behavior back on them and sends them away soundly rebuked. The Pharisees in first century Judaism were something of a political party, religious sect, and social movement. They were often in conflict with the Sadducees, who were more aristocratic, largely controlled activities at the temple, and were cooperative with the Roman government. Although neither sect represented a majority of Jewish people, the Pharisees were more connected to the interpretation of Jewish spirituality in everyday life, and were thus more connected to the people than the elite Sadducees. After the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, it was the thinking of the Pharisees that most contributed to Rabbinic Judaism, which was the basis for most modern iterations of Judaism.

In the particular episode reflected in Mark 7:1-23, the Pharisees are challenging Jesus based on their understanding of purity laws. Through highly ritualized daily practices, the Pharisees kept their spiritual identities at the forefront of their thought, infusing all that they did with spiritual meaning. That was the idea, at least. Unfortunately, as the author of Mark points out, living a highly stylized life can leave something to be desired in terms of human value and ethics. The Pharisees advocated allowing people to withhold wealth and possessions from needy family members if that wealth was dedicated to the temple. It was a loophole that allowed people to excuse themselves from taking care of their families, and also allowed the church to accumulate wealth when those people died. In the meantime, people kept enjoying the "dedicated" resources. It was a system that fed into people's greed, which is just a specific kind of fear.

When the Pharisees challenged Jesus based on the fact that he didn't engage in all of the ceremonial behaviors they advocated, he levied this matter of Corban against them to demonstrate their hypocrisy. This was just one facet of a larger picture, however. Ultimately, the author of Mark suggests that the entire worldview of the Pharisees was skewed. Living in accordance to a personal code of purity does nothing to connect one to other people or to oneself. There are no bonus points in life for being borderline obsessive-compulsive about hand-washing. What actually matters is what one does with one's time and energy.

Brought into focus for the twenty-first century, the author of Mark is saying that it doesn't matter if you go to church, contribute to charities, pray before your meals, put the right bumper stickers on your car, read a devotional every morning, or engage in any other "spiritual" behaviors that ultimately might just make you feel good about yourself. What matters is what we do in the world, how we treat the people around us, what kind of a difference we make in other people's lives -- our fruit. All of the spiritual disciplines or holy habits that people might engage in can be fertilizer, but what matters most is what we produce in the practical realities of our lives. If we don't bear any meaningful fruit, all we've really got is a ton of fertilizer.

So, rather than pride ourselves in how well-behaved we are or how well we have colored inside the lines of our lives, our focus could be on how we respond to the opportunities we have to connect with other people and make a difference in the world -- even if that difference only seems to directly impact one other person. Helping one person's day go more smoothly might actually have a greater ripple effect than we will ever realize. But if we go through our lives willing to help one person's day go more smoothly, we are going to wind up having a positive impact on more than one person.

Being connected to ourselves is important too; we need time for introspection and we operate best when we are aware of our deep guiding principles. Those things are empty, however, if they never feed into an outward expression of the kind of people we most want to be in the world. We have the potential to create a world that is characterized by justice, equity, and compassion. It just requires being intentional about what we do, and perhaps shifting our focus away from being righteous and toward being connected.

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