Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Whose traditions of men is Jesus complaining about?
Lutherans approach the Gospel for today with the same apprehension and fear of a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. We are self-conscious of what happens on Sunday morning and instinctively fear that Jesus is talking about us when He speaks of man made tradition that displaces the Word of the Lord.
It does not help that with some regularity somebody will remind me that all of this stuff is not essential. Altars, pipe organs, stained glass, kneeling, standing, crossing yourself, bowing, genuflecting, even going to church. These are the traditions of men, not the requirements of God. Right? Or is it that simple?
How odd it is to read through Leviticus and see how rigid God was in shaping the building, the vestments of the priests, and the worship life of the temple and then figure that today God is happy enough if we are doing what we want, what we find meaningful, and if we are doing it all sincerely!
Some think that Jesus’ words in the Gospel for today are directed against ceremonies or rituals in worship but this is a great lie. Jesus does not offer us a choice between sincerity of heart and outward actions. In fact, Jesus insists upon both. His anger is reserved for those who choose one over the other – who are content with sincerity of heart but refuse the outward actions of piety or those who choose the outward actions of piety but whose hearts are empty of faith and trust.
Where do you find Jesus ever challenging the exacting and demanding requirements of the Law with respect to the worship of the temple? Where does He say ritual or ceremony is bad? What Jesus condemns is phoney law that substitutes keeping rules for having faith or phoney faith that lives so deeply down in the heart that it does not affect who people are or what they do and refuses to adhere to any tradition.
Jesus never accuses the Pharisees of misreading the requirements of the Law but of substituting their ideas of its fulfillment with God's Law and being so satisfied by their keeping of these rules that they lacked faith and trust in God’s mercy. Jesus insists they have corrupted the Law by using to justify self-righteous sinners in their sins. The Law always accuses us and never justifies us. This is what they missed and why they were not so sure they needed saving or a Savior.
Jesus called the Pharisees the feel-good religion of the day. The Law which should have condemned sinners and used their guilt and shame to point them to Christ their Savior, became a feel good law that justified their works. It told them that their best was good enough for God. In the end there is nothing different between the Pharisees who told people to trust in their works and modern day religion which tells people to trust their feelings. In the end the same thing results – evil becomes good and good becomes evil.
Real Law is from God to protect us from the ravages of sin unbridled by fear of punishment. Real Law always accuses us of our sin and of our helplessness without a Savior. Real Law always accuses us but it does not only accuse – it also directs the saved on whom God has had mercy how to live as God’s own child and do His bidding.
Real Law is not window dressing but has the power to convict us sinners as to sin and direct us helpless to Jesus Christ our Help and our Savior. That is what our Lord found missing then and what we run the risk of endangering today. When we are no longer called to repentance and pointed to Christ, it does not matter what rituals we do or how sincere we are – we are dead in trespasses and sin and unable to save ourselves.
This is not a choice between rituals and ceremonies and faith but the proper union of both. Here hearts are reborn by the Spirit to love what the Lord loves and to seek to please the Lord inwardly with faith and outwardly with faithful words and actions. The God of Leviticus did not become schizophrenic and develop a different personality in the New Testament. It is the same God. In fact, we are the schizophrenics who are forget what sin has done and who no longer hear the Law as the convicting Word of the Lord. But God has sent us His Son, given us His Spirit, called us to repentance empowered by that Spirit, and healed us that His mercy may have its way with us and our hearts trust in His grace.
There is no place where Jesus condemns the rituals or ceremonies of the Temple. Jesus does condemn those who do them without faith and then are proud of their works. Repentance is not merely an inward admission of our sin and guilt but the acknowledgment that works can never save us. Emptied of all our illusions, we are pointed to the only one who can save us. When we pray God to create in us clean hearts, we are praying also for clean hands, that we may worship Him with our lips and with our words and actions shaped by faith. There is no disconnect between hearts of faith and the delight in God's commands. In worship they come together and we gladly surrender personal preference and the pride of works to rejoice in the mercy that forgives our sins and makes our hearts new again. Our prayer today is that with pure hearts we may trust and with pure lips, hands, and bodies we may do the work of those whom God has called from darkness into light. Amen