Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy Moses spoke to the people and told them to obey the laws and customs taught to them. In this way they will have life and take possession of the land promised to them. They should neither add nor subtract from the commandments they were given. In this way they will demonstrate to God both wisdom and understanding. By doing this they will understand the “whole Law.” In Mark’s Gospel we began with Pharisees and scribes complaining to Jesus that some of his disciples violated their law by not washing their hands before eating and violating other teachings. Jesus then accused them of being hypocrites and accused them of clinging to human traditions instead of listening to the commandment of God. He then turned away from the Pharisees and scribes and told all those gathered that uncleanliness doesn’t come to someone from outside. The things that make someone unclean come from our hearts: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, and folly.
To my amusement, from time to time, someone will announce to me that he (or she) has decided to read the Bible, cover to cover. Nearly without fail this person will fly through Genesis and Exodus, but will get so bogged down in Leviticus and Numbers that they give up. I’m certainly a fan of reading the Bible, but it’s a complex collection of books and reading it cover to cover promises a dizzying journey. That’s a shame because they surrender before the book of Deuteronomy.
We all know that Exodus describes the events when the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt and, led by Moses, began their journey to the Promised Land. Leviticus and Numbers offer technical rules over what is demanded of them and what happened to the journey, but Deuteronomy consists of a series of speeches Moses gave to his followers on their eve of entrance to the Promised Land.
Moses emphatically encouraged his followers that when they are called to choose between life and death, that they choose life. In today’s reading he instructed them to take notice of the laws and customs they were taught, and through that they will demonstrate that they are a great nation.
I think I’m safe in saying we were taught that God expected us to follow the rules. Parents and teachers told children that obeying the rules didn’t come from them, but from God. And that’s fine for children but I’m going to argue that this simple obedience to the rules may make us good children, but not good adults. I’m going to argue that these readings call us to begin with obedience as children and progress to faithfulness as adults, and we are called to this progression.
Moses insisted that his followers keep the commandments and this will “demonstrate to the peoples your wisdom and understanding.” That may sound fine, but it simply doesn’t make sense. The ability to follow rules may make us obedient but it doesn’t make us wise. Even a small child can follow instructions (e.g. “don’t lie”) but only an adult can act with wisdom.
But here’s the thing: none of us begin with wisdom. Only by following the rules do we start the journey of faithfulness. Only by examining the reason for the rules do we understand why they are rules.
As children we listened to our parents and obeyed them (well, most of the time) and as we matured we began to understand why they told us what to do. Eventually, as we grew up, they needed to give us fewer (or at least different) instructions because we began to understand the purpose of the instructions. A third grader has a bedtime because he won’t (on his own) go to bed with enough sleep before the next school day, but a junior in high school will. Parents understand that they are called to produce adults who faithfully navigate an adult world.
And that brings us to today’s Gospel. I’m amused to find that after reading Moses’ command to observe the commands we read how Jesus didn’t respond well to the Pharisees and scribes who complained that Jesus’ followers didn’t. They were, in fact, correct: all Jews customarily washed their hands before meals
Jesus’ criticism must have caught them off guard but I think he spoke an important truth. Too often I see adult Christians whose learning impresses me. They come to me with advanced degrees, mature marriages, and emotional intelligence, but talk to me about faith when it’s clear that their relationship with God hasn’t advanced beyond what they were taught as 10 year olds.
I’ve met with several engaged couples where I’ve wanted to talk about the sacramentality of their decision and their hopes to bear children who will continue to build the Kingdom of God. Most of them shared my excitement but some have used our time together to express fears that God’s judgement will crash down on them for the sins of pre-marital sex or birth control.
Those meetings made me sad. Jesus’ frustration with the Pharisees and the scribes came from the fact that they accepted obedience and ignored Moses’ call to wisdom. They were accepted as the learned men of their time, the men everyone should listen to. The challenged Jesus on the belief that he, and all those gathered, would condemn Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus called them out because Jesus had bigger dreams for his disciples, but the Pharisees didn’t. You see, they were considered the most learned of their time and they used this status to build themselves up. As long as they were the adults and everyone else was a child, they could continue a relationship that benefited them. But if everyone develops wisdom and understanding, then the Pharisees would lose a great deal of their status.
I spent a good deal of the 1980s working as the Director or Religious Education and Youth Minister and observed many relationships between parents and children. The overwhelming number of parents celebrated when their children began to understand how things worked and began to exercise self discipline. They celebrated wisdom. But I also noticed a few parents who didn’t. It’s hard to assume motives in someone else but I always felt they didn’t want their children to become adults. It was hard to watch them treat 17 year olds like 7 year olds, if for no other reason that it doesn’t work. I watched these teens grow into a seething resentment and deep anger. I don’t know what became of these few families, but I suspect at least some of them are estranged from each other.
And so I think that God calls us not only to wisdom in ourselves but also in each other. Whether in families or at the office we exercise authority in others and we can decide if we are satisfied with obedience or if we dream of more for them. Let’s dream.