Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Who holds the reins in your life? (Reflections on Mark 7:1-13)

When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”

The hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees is usually the first thing that comes to mind when we read this particular Gospel passage. Today though, I propose we look at what’s going on from another angle, one that’s not as readily noticed yet remains deeply embedded in the problem Jesus saw in many of the religious leaders of his day.

Religious practices, if they arise from an authentic faith, are meant to be outward manifestations of what lies deep inside a believer’s heart. They are the external signs of an inner disposition we usually call “worship”. And worship is the acknowledgment that God is God, and we are his creatures. We bow before him; he doesn’t bow to us. He has control over our lives, because we have wholeheartedly given the reins of our life to him; and we hold nothing back.

It can happen, however, that for some—and by all indications many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had fallen into this trap—religious practices cease to be means of worshipping God, but ways of “controlling” Him. This type of idolatrous religion, found in Israel’s pagan neighbors, was so loathsome to God that the prophets constantly reminded them that the Living God wasn’t some kind of genie who needed to be appeased if they were to obtain from Him what they wanted.

Now no one could accuse the the Scribes and the Pharisees of being engaged, at least not blatantly, in this type of religiosity, and Jesus was hardly accusing them of idolatry. Still, one can't help but suspect that underneath all that piety, devotion, and rigorous attention to the minutest detail of their religion, there was something lurking that wasn't quite right, something perhaps that mirrors what the philosopher, David Hume, called "transactional religiosity" or "transactional faith".


According to Hume, this kind of religiosity, common to the devout and non-devout alike is one that essentially says "I'll do what you want, Lord; but in return I want you to do something for me". Here, we are reminded for instance of the character, Salieri in the film Mozart who as a young boy dedicated his life to God, and in return, asked only that God make him the most famous composer in all of Europe.

When many years later, this doesn’t happen, Salieri feels betrayed by God and declares war on on both God and the one he thought God favored more, the young Mozart. “Why do you bless him, when all his behavior does is bring you shame? Whereas I through my music and life, have sought nothing but to give glory to your name?”

Salieri’s sin, which might as well be that of the Scribes and Pharisees, was to see religion as a means by which one could curry, if not control divine favor. That to Jesus was the worst kind of religion of all; because it inverts the natural order of things. “Their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me.”

God is the one in control, not ourselves. And none of our religious practices, especially not the external ones should make us forget that in the end, we do them, not to curry God’s favor or dictate to Him what he should do. Rather, we do them to acknowledge God as God and humbly recognize our total dependence on Him.

True faith hands over the reins of one’s life to God, totally and completely, holding nothing back, seeking nothing in return. The prayer of the authentic believer—the prayer which we should learn to pray and grow into daily should always be the prayer of Christ, who after having done everything God had asked of him, still found himself facing death. “Not ours, Lord; not ours, but your will be done”.

Who’s holding the reins in your life?

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)