When I noticed that today’s Gospel lesson was about burdensome laws, I had to smile. Because for the last month, my life has been dominated by one particular burdensome law—Virginia Civil Code 46.2-1177. That’s the law that requires that all Fairfax County vehicles pass an emissions test prior to registration. Now, in principle, I think it’s a very good law. I think we have a responsibility to limit carbon emissions, and I want my kids to breathe clean air, and I’m sure that auto mechanics do work that contributes to the common good. But in practice—well let’s just say I’ve made eight trips to Sunset Hills Automotive, and we haven’t passed yet. I’m on a first name basis with everyone in the shop.
I drive a big old car, which I inherited from my grandfather. He always liked a pretty car and this one was his last one and his favorite. Sometimes, when I climb into it, I can still smell my grandmother’s perfume. I love the leather seats and the leg room, but the car has reached a certain age, and apparently its valves, sensors and gas cap appear to be hurtling down the “way of all flesh.” Over at Sunset Hills, they test it, and when it fails, they find something wrong and fix that. Then I have to drive it for fifty miles at varying speeds to reset the monitor and first thing in the morning, they will test it again. And the process repeats, and the repair bills rise, and I’m left a rather less enthusiastic environmentalist than I was when I first moved to Virginia. All those trips back and forth to the mechanic’s, all that steam being released from my ears—when you stack up those emissions against the ones escaping from the minuscule gaps around the sides of my gas cap, I just wonder how that computes.
Virginia Civil Code 46.2-1177 graciously has a mercy clause. If you spend over $750 on emissions repairs, they call it a day and pass you anyway. There was no such way out of the Old Testament’s dietary rules, at least as interpreted by the Pharisees. Today’s Gospel focuses on a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees over an even more burdensome law.
The Pharisees criticize Jesus’ disciples for eating with unwashed hands. This isn’t a commentary on hygiene. It’s about ritual purity. The Old Testament law had quite a few regulations about eating. Everyone remembers the prohibition on pork, but other foods were also forbidden, as was the mixing of certain foods. There were also additional rules surrounding foods which had been offered in sacrifice to God. In Numbers chapter 18, God commands the priests who work in the tabernacle that they should wash their hands before consuming the food consecrated at the Altar. The washing of hands here at our Altar before the offering of the Eucharist is a kind of remote survival of that old rule. It’s meant to express the teaching that holy things are to be handled with reverence, and that we must approach God cleansed from sin.
But the Pharisees had extended that law—it was called “building a fence around the law.” What was originally a regulation for only a small number of people—the priests, and for a particular place and situation—the temple, when sacrifice was offered—was extended by the Pharisees to cover all people and all kinds of meals. Truly righteous people, they believed, must wash hands before consuming any food—with a certain amount of water, up to certain joints of the fingers, using certain prayers—and so on, and so on. And if they did not or could not (as most working people, in a country where water is scarce could not), well then, for the Pharisees, they were probably unclean, and most certainly irreverent, and ignorant, and so on, and so on.
The Pharisees weren’t just trying to be obnoxious. Their movement had arisen in a time of desperation, when the Jews had no power, and were dispersed across a mighty empire with a sophisticated dominant culture. They were afraid it was all going to spin out of control, any minute, that all their brightest and best would sign up for the Roman army, head off for a philosophical career in pagan Athens or marry the daughter of the richest camel dealer in central Arabia. In a generation, they feared, God’s chosen people would vanish into thin air. But if you focused on keeping alive the traditions of the past, and you rewarded those who were zealous for the law, well maybe, they hoped, God would smile on his people again. Until then, they would hold it together for the days of glory just around the corner.
Jesus has very little patience for this anxious, manipulative strategy. He really criticizes the Pharisees for missing the point, for confusing a true zeal for the law, a true desire to live according to God’s will, with a finicky fixation on burdensome regulations and obscure traditions. Jesus isn’t saying that God’s law is unimportant, and He’s not freeing people to live however they like. He shares the Pharisee’s zeal for the law, stressing in other parts of his teaching that not a bit of it should be eliminated and that those who teach others to break it should be condemned. Jesus Himself was completely faithful to the law, expressing its deepest purpose in a way that far out-shadowed even the greatest of the Pharisees.
But Jesus says it’s the inner purpose of the law, what Jeremiah called the law “written on the heart” that’s what really matters to God. He criticizes the Pharisees for giving God lip-service, while their heart “is far from me.” And then, a bit later in the exchange, He talks about the sources of true defilement. He gives a great list of evil deeds fueled by what the Baptismal service calls “sinful desires that draw you from the love of God." They don’t spring from external things. You can’t avoid jealousy by washing your food more fastidiously. These deeds and desires are from the heart. And the heart, turned away from God, bent on destruction, but also abounding in such great potential for good—that’s what God really wants to heal and claim for Himself.
The great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe described this distinction when he said that the spiritual life is like soccer (well, because he’s British, he said it was like football—but you know what I mean). The rules of the game are important. If you don’t know them and discipline yourself by them, the game you are playing isn’t really soccer. But if your only goal is not to break the rules, you miss the point of the game. Soccer’s about playing with gracefulness and power, using your abilities as well as you possibly can, developing skills over time that will bring consistent success. Good playing comes from the heart of the game, and only when you can set your anxieties about the rules aside to concentrate on what matters most.
There are rules for the Christian life: the commandments inherited from the Old Testament, the clear moral teachings of the New Testament. There are rubrics about how the liturgy should be celebrated, canon laws about governance, and civil laws about how we handle money. They are important, and we serve God best when we know them and are faithful to them. There have always been some Christians who have a particular zeal for them, usually especially for the ones especially far from the beaten path; and that zeal is commendable in its way. But sometimes, as for the Pharisees, that zeal is caught up in a kind of fear and anxiety about the future that is not really of God. And sometimes, it can be bundled with anger, jealousy, pride and all sorts of other inner sins that are plainly contrary to His will. It has always been fully possible to keep the law and miss the point.
You know, I’ve noticed that here in Northern Virginia, there seems to be a great deal of emphasis on procedure, following the rules, doing everything in exactly the right way. And I get that. I’m part of that great brotherhood of Type A people. I like my desk in order, the goal in sight and my to-do list synced across all devices. People in this area are people primarily responsible for running the world’s most complex bureaucracy—and on the whole you do that very well.
The rules have their place in getting things accomplished. But it’s also easy to carry that kind of focus on externals that is entirely appropriate in your professional life into other arenas where it is a little less useful. I just wish I heard a little more talk about love, joy, peace, patience and kindness in the emails and phone calls I receive at my office, and a little less about regulations, budgets, and spreadsheets. Really, it’s going to be okay. We’re in God’s hands. You’re in God’s hands. This simple fact frees us to tend to things which matter most in this life. We have been redeemed to serve Him with whole heart, mind and strength, to play the game beautifully, practicing those virtues that show God’s work within us. Let us ask of Him the grace to put first things first and to commend the rest to His care and keeping.