Posted: Thursday 6th September 2018
In Word and Deed
Proper 17 year B 2018
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Rev’d Simon Buckley.
There are occasions when the connection between the two readings set for our Sunday service can be rather tenuous. However, that can’t be said of today’s readings which hammer home to us that true faith results in good actions. Belief should blossom into righteous activity.
From the letter of James we heard:
Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves… they’re like people who look in a mirror and going away forget what they saw. Don’t be hearers who forget but doers who act – those who do will be blessed in their doing.
And then in the gospel we hear the Pharisees berating the disciples for not being doers… for hearing the law of Moses (including the detailed rituals about washing up) and not following it.
And Jesus kicks the proverbial ball right back to the Pharisees team by quoting the prophet Isaiah back to them:
This people honours me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me teaching human precepts as doctrines.
The Pharisees were doers, but of the easy bits of their religion: the overtly religious practices and observance for all to see. Doers of man-made rituals (and there it is accurate to use gender specific language!) rather than doers of what God really longed for. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is exposed.
Back to the apostle James:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.
These were not new injunctions made up by James in the light of his understanding of God revealed through Jesus Christ, but direct quotations from the books of Moses themselves, from Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the prophet Isaiah too .
The Pharisees thought they were in control of the ball, but they’ve dropped it badly, the Christians have scored, the game is over and we (the crowd) go wild!
But of course this isn’t simply a game of football (though I’m reminded of the Liverpool manager Bill Shankley who quipped “football isn’t a matter of life and death- it’s much more serious than that!”). What we have here is genuinely a tragedy. Because the great sadness was that the Pharisees, who had spent more time than any others on studying the scriptures, on reading what God wanted them to do and how he longed for the whole people of Israel to live, either failed to see it or had lost sight of it. They who should have been best equipped to live righteous lives were amongst the least righteous, and they who should have been the first to recognise the righteousness of Christ were of course the last. Even the centurion at the foot of the cross was to be ahead of them in saying ‘truly this man was the Son of God’ and didn’t Pilate dither and said he failed to see the evil in him that the Pharisees claimed to.
It is easy though to read the gospels and demonise the Pharisees, who weren’t intentionally nasty but just blind to their shortcomings, partial in their reading of scripture, selective in their hearing of God’s call on their lives ….. just, indeed, as we can all be. Sometimes deliberately (like kids ignoring their parent’s instruction to tidy their bedroom) and sometimes innocently or ignorantly.
The charge of hypocrisy is one that is thrown at religious people all too frequently. It’s often an easy way to dismiss all people of faith and the faith, usually by those with no faith- who in doing so assume a moral superiority that no truly religiously person would ever claim for themselves. But it is the case that – and I realise that as I say this I set myself like a coconut in a coconut shy in the village fete, ready to be knocked off its pedestal- it is the case that those who claim to take their religion seriously (clergy amongst them) should be seen to take that religion seriously, though there’s a strong chance they will practice it imperfectly. But their seriousness will be seen not by the sentences they craft to deliver in church on a Sunday morning but by the things they do on a Monday afternoon. When not as hearers of the word or reciters of the word they are revealed to be doers of the word.
It is both a cliché and a truism that actions speak louder than words, which is why it’s unsurprising that, for all Pope Francis’s warmth, humility and humanity, those who have suffered abuse at the hands of clergy, have said they’ve had enough of even his words and that it is time for them to see action- not least amongst the clergy (who like the Pharisees of whom better should have been expected). And they don’t just want religious actions: prayers of penitence or acts of fasting can simply become the washing of cups, pots and bronze kettles for the present day. They want real root and branch change. As the Archbishop of Dublin has said, “saying sorry is not enough- the structures in the Roman Catholic Church that permit, facilitate or cover-up abuse must be broken down and broken down for ever and everywhere”. Actions are needed that prove the words are sincere.
But where does that leave us who will hear the words of scripture again today to be not merely hearers but doers: we who know we can be slow to listen but quick to anger, to those of us who are yet to recognise let alone banish any ‘sordidness and rank growth of wickedness’ as James put it, or who struggle to control any of the list of sinful, destructive, desires that Jesus recognises people frequently experience within themselves. Is our religion ‘worthless’ if it doesn’t somehow make us perfect? Do we abandon the Christian faith and the church because we don’t see it making us or others perfect?
A letter in last week’s edition of the Tablet articulated the dilemma that many Catholics have faced as their faith has been dashed by the behaviour of those in whom they had previously put their trust:
Every day it seems, reports emerge about the wickedness of clergy, men who would claim to be called by God….l. The average catholic is bewildered and ashamed. We ask ourselves, do we give up on our faith? ….The answer must be no. The tempest tossed church will survive. Jesus Christ came for sinners and we are all sinners. Our faith is not in sinful men (sic) but in Christ Jesus.
And to put faith in Jesus Christ is not only to believe words about him, but to seek to live like him. To live that true religion which is not about doctrine and ritual but about growing in love, real costly, self-giving love for our neighbour- the orphans and widows in their distress amongst them. That’s what putting our faith in Christ calls us to accept: a different way of life where we do try and keep ourselves unstained by the world (to quote the letter of James again) because the world tells us me that I am the most important person in it, whereas the faith of Jesus puts the other at the centre. And what a different world, what a truly religious world it would be if we each put the other before ourselves: their needs, their experiences, their difference, the image of God as it uniquely resides in them, before ourselves.
Is such a world one to genuinely strive for- I would hope so. Is it achievable? Probably not. As my college principle quipped one day when he saw two ordinands, priests in training, simultaneously holding doors open and each refusing to budge before the other; “Ah” he said “what has four legs and four arms but can’t fit through a door? Two Christians”. It is perhaps both an unattainable and maybe impossible ideal for everyone to put the other first, but nevertheless we cannot shift concern and care for the other from being at the centre of our faith- if we are to be holy doers. And if neither of those ordinands had bothered to hold the door open for the other then I think we would have all said ‘they’re not very Christian are they?”.
Like those ordinands, we won’t always be able to win. And perhaps what is most important is that we never try and fool ourselves that we have won, that we fall into the trap of the Pharisees of believing we’re in the first division when in truth we’re in the bottom of the league table.
Rather we need to recognise that although we’re lousy players, by faith in the grace of Christ we are on the winning team and every day we are called to practice.
To return to the new hymn we sang earlier:
Walk with our God, humbly each day,
Help us to do all that we say.
Justice and mercy should crown all we bring
This, this, is the worship we offer our king.
 Ex 22:22, Deut 10:18, Is 1:17
 Neil Tully. The Tablet 1st September 2018. P. 24