I could be descended from the Pharisees, on my mother’s side. Every time I hear the gospel for today, I feel uneasy. She was as concerned for cleanliness and non-defilement as these Pharisees, probably carried the gene. I could exit the bathroom after blowing my nose: “Did you wash your hands?” “Well, no, all I did was–” “Go back in and wash your hands now,” she’d say. “Pharisee,” I muttered to myself. Dad got home from work. “You’ll never guess what Stevie did today,” she’d say. “What – you catch him smoking?” Me – I’d barely graduated from kindergarten. “Worse,” she yells, “he sat down at lunch and hadn’t washed his hands,” with one of those “not my kid,” glances at me. Then I started carrying the phone number of the nearest orphanage in my back pocket, just in case.
Now, I am not saying mom was wrong or bad, nor were the Pharisees ignorant and awful fundamentalists as often portrayed. Washing prevents disease and worse. I get that. I suspect a spirit of fear lurked behind her rules, not risk management. She feared what others might think. The way Mark tells it, these Pharisees and scribes carry a spirit, too – of jealousy, a fear that Jesus would be more popular than them. So they try to embarrass him.
First century Judaism had evolved to stressing repentance. You turn around, return to God humbly to receive forgiveness. Keeping laws was insufficient. Jesus preaches the same. Law and spirit work together. The Law has the potential to bring God more fully into your awareness. You see there’s more dirt than what’s on your hands. Not every sect of first century Judaism agreed with this. Most Pharisees did – but chances are these we meet today are more into Law enforcement – go through motions and live as you please.
Jesus, known for knowing a thing or two about Law and Spirit himself, quotes Isaiah, “Hypocrites honor God with their mouths but not their hearts. Their worship is in vain.” They create their own rules and say, “God says…” Jesus then names specific infractions, and sums it up: “what goes in won’t defile you. What comes out can.” Keep and obey rules, but if evil comes out of you, you evidently don’t know God. Behind the Law is God’s love and grace. God cares that we love Him and how we treat each other. Evil intentions or thoughts – we can’t help but have sometimes. What we do with them matters. When we act unconsciously and without thought, evil can become manifested in us. Self-awareness of what we say and do matter. That leads to repentance.
Years ago a man convicted of committing a horrendous crime received life imprisonment, while proclaiming his innocence. The victim had memorized his face. She knew he did it, and wanted the death penalty. For eleven years he maintains his innocence, until DNA testing could be entered as court evidence. That evidence frees him. The wronged man begins a new life – has a job, a wife and child. He puts his past behind him, as best he can.
Two years later to him arrives a letter from the woman who falsely accused him. She’s filled with shame and guilt, and hopes he could forgive her. The law had not been on his side. As he says, “The truth will set you free? Sometimes the truth will hurt you.” So now, how will he react? Would he even read the letter? If he responds, could he forgive her, or would he revile her? When this woman approached him asking forgiveness, he realized in prison he controlled nothing. Now he could control one thing – his response. So much wrong had been done him, and could not be erased, yet from his heart came forgiveness – restoring both her life and his. I don’t know if he was very religious. He did know a bit of scripture. And what came out of his mouth – well, now he and the victim work together as advocates for those who have been wrongly accused of committing serious crimes. How do you suppose you’d respond if God forbid, such happened to you? What about lesser offenses toward you? Do we hold onto what’s wrong, what we fear, so tightly we are unable to hold onto God?
Those who wanted Jesus neutralized used the Law of Moses and Caesar against him. Jesus wouldn’t try to change his circumstances. He’d control his response. He dies – loving the world God so loves – asking forgiveness and pardon to those who thought wrongly they knew best, those with no clue what they do – for any who wouldn’t think of asking forgiveness. He kept the letter and the spirit of the most important command of Judaism, “Love God, and love one another.” To some, the way he died proved he was a fraud and wrong. Others see in his death the heart of God opened with love and forgiveness for us all. Conforming to rules and laws won’t transform us. Jesus fulfills the Law, God’s intention and will. Jesus is on a heart transplantation project for God. “For it is from within, from the human heart, evil intentions come.” One day – God will finally fix all that. I suspect for some, who don’t take that to heart they could have a painful process waiting on them – that could have been avoided.