Homily: Where Did it All Go Wrong?
Where did it all go wrong? That might be the heading for our readings this morning from Scripture. Think for a moment about our verses from Deuteronomy, where Moses is giving the Israelites his final instructions before they cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. Then James the Apostle says, the key to a pure and faultless religion is to look after orphans and widows and keep oneself untainted by the world.
Scripture is full of passages that extol the Law as God’s precious gift. And yet for all that it can so easily become something ugly and oppressive and deadly. It can so become something that deals death instead of life. And then of course it tells a different story to the nations, of what a Loving God we have.
That is what we find in our reading from Mark’s Gospel today. It has all gone wrong. The Pharisees are the ultimate bad guys in the Gospel story. If the Gospel story were a pantomime, the Pharisees would be the ugly sisters, the scoundrels who we all boo whenever they come onto the stage.
They are the nit-picking legalists who skew and distort God’s Law. They are obsessed with external things like hand-washing while Jesus is more concerned with what comes from the heart, the inner attitude. And for Jesus the Pharisees seem to exemplify how easily it can all go wrong, as this beautiful gift of the law becomes an instrument of tyranny.
God tells Moses: “this law which is being handed on is the key to life. Do this and you will live! Do this and you will be a just and righteous nation which experiences life as it is meant to be lived!”
Israel’s life should be something to be celebrated, so that wonder and splendor and beauty should be revealed in the life of this people. In an often brutal and oppressive world people should look at this one nation and say, ˜Wow! There is something different! That’s how life should be lived!”
The problem is that this is a high risk strategy because it can all so easily all go wrong. And it did. You see, this law with which Israel has been entrusted, this law which was the key to Israel’s life, this law which is the key to its witness to the nations is something beautiful and liberating. It is something to be cherished and treasured and it should inspire in us devotion and zeal.
You could argue that Jesus’ stinging criticism of the Pharisees was harsh. They were good people, trying their best to live God’s Law to its fullest. Yet somehow, despite best intentions, it had all gone wrong and the Law had become deadly and oppressive. And now the life of the people of God was telling a different story. It was telling a story of a different God, a tyrant in fact and it seems that God’s high-risk strategy had back-fired.
You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for God actually, this God who has chosen to be bound to this people, binding the divine name with theirs. In fact you can imagine God not wanting to be identified with this people at all. I suspect that God has a T-shirt somewhere in a drawer and on it is written, ‘I’m not with them!’, and it must be a frequent temptation for God to wear it — not just in relation to Israel but also in relation to the Church. — I’m not with them; ‘Nothing to do with me!’
We can find Pharisees among the best of church-goers today and in regard to the best of causes. One hears their voices oftentimes on issues of immigration or the rights of workers to organize or those with different gender preferences, or the death penalty or even on the most important of issues like abortion or war or racism or the treatment of prisoners. Dare we point it out even among the most elevated of the church’s leaders in regard to the dedicated work of today’s religious women, the sisters who give so much of themselves in service to the church and to those in need.
C.S. Lewis once commented:”God does not make demons out of fleas but out of angels.”. The corruption of the best is the worst and that is true of God’s Law and it is true of the Christian faith and it is true of religion in general, as our atheist critics are very quick to point out. As Christopher Hitchins puts it, ˜Religion poisons everything”. The corruption of the best is the worst and sometimes that is still true of those of us, like the Pharisees, who are most zealous and passionate about God.
So how do we keep it from going wrong? How do we fulfill our calling to be a sign to the world, a blessing rather than a curse? There are no simple answers. Catch-phrases to zeal and commitment aren’t enough; that can simply intensify the poison. So how do we keep our religion on track? This is the question that James seems to be wrestling with in his letter today; and maybe he can help us.
At the end of today’s passage, he addresses the question of what is authentic religion, His declaration about helping the orphans and widows. That’s a sort of short-hand for the marginalized, the defenseless, the vulnerable — those who don’t fit and who feel society’s cold shoulder. And James is saying, “Look after them! Keep close to them and let your faith be focused there.”
Well that’s simple enough. But what about keeping oneself untainted from the world? What’s that all about? Well, James seem to be saying that keeping untainted from the world doesn’t mean living in some rarefied bubble of piety and purity. It doesn’t mean isolating yourself, far removed and de-contaminated from the squalor and mess of the world. No. It’s that caring for the vulnerable and marginalized has a purifying effect on us. It clarifies our vision, shifts our perspective. It readjusts and realigns our priorities, reconfigures our perception and has a divine transforming effect upon us.
That’s what made Jesus different from the Pharisees. By immersing himself in the marginalized and excluded, He became ‘contaminated’; he was able to see the world truly. From that perspective he could see the world through the eyes of God and so he was able to live and to teach the truth and interpret the Law and he could keep his faith on track.
The Pharisees on the other hand, in their squeaky clean purity and for all their zeal and devotion, kept themselves away from the one place where they could really see the world as it was and the one place from which they could interpret the Law rightly. And that is why they got it so wrong.
There is no shortage of critics of Christianity and of religion in general in our world today; we have to confess that much of what they say is true. Devotion to God, devotion to Gods’ Law, when it gets distorted, becomes demonic. So how do we keep our religion pure and faultless? How do we interpret God’s Law?
Here is somewhere to start. Look after the widow and the orphan. Keep close to the vulnerable. Put that in place and let the rest follow and you won’t go too far wrong.
Rev. Lance Stone, Minister, Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge