Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
What does it mean to be a person of faith, a religious person, a spiritual person, or a member of the church? These are questions that I encounter and find myself discussing on a regular basis. From people outside the church, I’m often asked, “Why do people still go to church? What do they get out of it?” And with those inside the church – especially those who are actively engaged in leadership and decision-making – the discussion is usually around the question of what is most important in our faith. What is the foundation of our faith? What are the essential practices? What must we continue and emphasize, and what are the small “t” traditions that we can let go of at times as we move along with a rapidly-changing world.
As I read and reflected on the scripture readings assigned for today in our lectionary, it was these questions about the meaning and significance of our faith and religious practice that were swirling through my head. Because each of today’s texts contributes some significant ideas to such a discussion, helping us to answer for ourselves and for our neighbours when they ask: “What is our religion really about?”
Let’s begin with the Gospel. What better place to begin than with what Jesus said about it? It’s important to remember that Jesus was a religious man. He was a faithful Jewish person who studied the Torah and worshipped in the synagogue and, during the great festivals, at the temple in Jerusalem. His ministry arose out of the context of a religious community who worshipped the One God of Israel and engaged in religious practice as best they could.
But as Jesus’ ministry progressed, as he gathered a following of disciples and began to teach them and lead them in new ways of faith and life, some within his own religious community began to question his priorities and practices. To some it seemed that this Jesus and his followers were not living properly religious lives. They were abandoning the traditions and practices of the faith and they needed to be challenged.
Our passage from Mark provides us with a little bit of background about Jewish practices of the time: “The Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.”
Some of the Pharisees and scribes, religious leaders of the time, notice that some of Jesus’ disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. And so they ask him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
On one level, it sounds like a simple enough question. Perhaps they’re simply interested in what Jesus and his group is doing differently. But you can almost hear the accusation in the question, can’t you? It’s not a simple query, but it’s an judgment. The disciples are forgetting, ignoring, or setting aside a religious practice that the Pharisees believe is essential, and they’re being called on it.
Can you think of any times in the Christian Church when we ask each other similar questions? When we judge one another for the practices that one group, or one generation deems to be essential, while another is willing to set it aside?
“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” they ask him. But Jesus doesn’t really answer the question. He neither defends his followers by arguing that the hand-washing ritual is not that important. Nor does he hold up the Pharisees judgment by instructing his disciples to follow the traditional religious practices more closely.
Instead, Jesus challenges the religious leaders to think deeply about what is most important in their faith and religious practice. And he doesn’t do this gently. He calls them hypocrites! He says that they honour God with their lips (they say the right prayers and follow the religious practices carefully) but their hearts are far from God. Instead of worrying about their own faith and life and the ministry that God has called them to, these Pharisees have become religious police who go around trying to make sure that everyone else is doing religion the way they do – the proper way.
Jesus says that they are worshipping God in vain and teaching human precepts as doctrines. He tells them that they are abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human traditions. He doesn’t tell them to stop washing their hands. It’s probably a helpful practice – not only for religious reasons, but because they will avoid the spread of germs and disease – but he reminds them that the faith that they are called to by God is about much more than when to wash your hands. It’s about the inclination of their hearts and the way they are called to live their lives in loving relationship with their neighbours.
It seems that for Jesus, religion is not a personal or private affair. It’s not primarily about our personal spirituality and the spiritual practices in which we engage ourselves… whether hand-washing, or dietary rules, or the particularities of the ways we pray or worship God. But religion is communal and social. It has to do with how we live our lives in relationship with our families, neighbours, and enemies. It is something that impacts all our relationships and calls us to reach out in love with our words and with our actions.
Jesus says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
The book of James is a very interesting one to read when we get thinking about what our faith is really about. James was a pastoral letter written for a broad Christian audience. It would have been copied and delivered to many different Christian Churches, sharing insights about what it meant to be Christian in the early years of what had become a new religion after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the passage we heard this morning from the first chapter, James gives some advice to the early Christians that the Pharisees should have heeded as well, in order to avoid a scolding from Jesus: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”
It seems that James is calling for humility in our journey of faith with one another. He’s advising us to take the time to listen to one another, and warning us not to get so entrenched in our ideas, our priorities, our practices that we get angry and upset with those who have a different perspective.
And of course, we need to stay focused on what our faith is really about. We read, and study, and reflect on God’s Word to us… and the point of all that is not just that we should KNOW more about God, or that we should UNDERSTAND or BELIEVE the right things… but the point is that in listening and hearing God’s Word we might be transformed by God’s love and God’s call, and that we might live differently… becoming “doers of the Word, and not merely hearers” as James puts it.
In verses 26 and 27, James really gets to the point, and he gives us a very clear answer to our question of what is most important in faith and religion: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
I don’t think that James is suggesting that good religion abandons all rituals or practices of worship, study, and reflection. But good religion can’t just stop there. It has to lead to lives that are transformed and that reach out about beyond themselves to love and care for the most vulnerable people in our societies.
When we’re asked that question from people outside the church: “Why do you still go to church?” Or when we’re discussing what is most important, what is the foundation of our faith and practice, with our fellow Christians… I think we all have to grapple with those questions for ourselves.
But today’s short passage from the Song of Solomon suggests another possible answer. As you may know, the Song of Solomon is a poetic book of love songs found amongst the Wisdom Books of the Hebrew Scriptures. On one level, it may be read as a book of beautiful poetry celebrating romantic love between a man and a woman.
But over the years, people of faith have also found in the love songs a reflection on the relationship between God and God’s people. That’s probably the reason why this particular book ended up being included in the Bible, because many people have read the love songs as an allegory about the love between the Divine One and the human creatures that God has invited into relationship with him.
In the text that we heard this morning, the woman is waiting at her house, or perhaps just inside her garden, for her lover who is on his way. She hears his voice calling out, and she sees him from a distance: “Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.”
And then he arrives at her house: “Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’”
Just think… in the allegory of this poem, God is the lover who is bounding over the hills to meet his beloved people and to invite them out into the wonders of a world that is coming alive again like flowers blooming in the spring. God is the one standing behind the wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice, and inviting us into a relationship of love: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me…”
Though we may learn spiritual practices in our churches over the years and find these meaningful and helpful in following the way of Jesus, our faith does not begin with learning a bunch of rules and rituals. And though we will engage in mission by helping the poor and standing up for justice, and caring for the most vulnerable people in our society, this is not usually our starting point either. These things come as part of our response to God’s goodness and love towards us.
But our faith begins with an invitation. It begins when we hear God’s voice calling to us, when we see God coming to us in Jesus Christ like a lover leaping upon the mountains and bounding over the hills to come and be with us and invite us into a relationship of love. It begins when we open our hearts to that relationship and respond to the invitation to arise and come away with him.
We can work out the details along the way. But why do we still come to church? And what is the foundation of our faith and religious life? It is that God has come to us in Jesus and called us into a relationship of love. And we have responded to that invitation with our hearts, with our minds, and with our bodies. We have dedicated ourselves to journeying with him and exploring life together with him. We don’t have all the answers, but we have been invited to follow his way.