This coming Sunday’s gospel reading has two sections. Most of this week’s Water Daily will focus on the second section. But today let’s look at the first part. It presents as a technical discussion of religious law, but in it we see Jesus radically reinterpret the religious understanding of his people, and dismiss the leadership of the teachers and leaders. No wonder they wanted him gone.
The story begins with a seemingly harmless statement:
Well, his disciples tell him, the Pharisees, chief upholders of the Law, took offense at that, presumably because it undermined rules about food and ritual cleansing. Jesus responds by further insulting them: He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”
Now he’s in deep, suggesting that these leaders are not authorized by God, and further, that they are blind guides for blind followers. To his puzzled disciples, Jesus explains that the impurity that should concern us is not whether our food is kosher or our hands ritually clean. Rather, it is the negative and destructive thoughts, words and actions that come from inside our hearts that defile us. He is not dispensing with the Law of Moses; he is reinterpreting it and, if you will, spiritualizing it.
This is central to the Good News, that the realm of God is less about rules and rituals than an invitation to dwell in the reality of God, in relationship with our heavenly Father. The human heart is a complicated place – capable of great love and generosity and grace, as well as pain and mean-spirited behavior toward ourselves and others. It’s our hearts that matter in the long run, more than bodies or behavior – and Jesus teaches that if we align our hearts with God, our behavior and bodies will reflect that alignment at our core. The movement is inside out, not outside in.
What does this ancient debate have to do with us? Perhaps it’s not so ancient, as our ongoing “morality wars” remind us. It is human nature to privilege rules and rituals that make us feel ordered, when what God asks is a reformed heart and a renewed spirit.
This passage tells me to look at my own heart to discern my motivations before adopting “behavior modification” techniques to help me better regulate my life. It invites me to connect with God early in the day so that what I do flows out of that renewed relationship. It reminds me to notice when I seek external “fixes” instead of internal renewal.
This teaching also reminds us as a society to treat the whole person with honor and dignity, even if he presents a problem, rather than treating symptoms and trying to impose regulation from without. Then each one can function out of her wholeness and we get a more whole community.
It’s not what we eat that’ll hurt us – it’s the distaste we harbor for our neighbor and the disrespect with which we sometimes treat ourselves. And Jesus can help us with that.