Matters of the Heart
Deut. 4: 1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
One day, while a Buddhist monk was in deep meditation at his monastery, he felt something fuzzy brush against his leg. But he was determined not to be distracted or disturbed so he ignored it. Then moments later it happened again… a furry little something brushed against his leg.
But again, in an attempt to remain diligent in his daily meditation he ignored it. And sure enough the furry little something started bumping into him repeatedly. So reluctantly, he opened his eyes… and looked down to find a little black kitten had gotten into the monastery and was looking for some attention.
The monk got up, picked up the little cat and took him outside and shooed him on his way.
Well, of course, a few minutes later, just when the monk had returned to his deep meditation, what happens?
He feels that furry little something brush against his leg.
So, the monk gets up again and takes the cat outside.
Well this became a pattern. The little cat just kept sneaking back inside and bothering the monks while they were in meditation.
So, he decides, that if the cat insisted on being inside the monastery that much, he was going to get a leash and tie the cat up during meditation time.
So, he did! He put the cat on the leash. Attached him to a pillar in their sanctuary area, nice and out of reach.
Time went by… the monks continued to tie the cat up… And after many years, the monk in charge of the monastery, known as the abbot, passes away, and a new abbot is brought in.
When the new abbot goes into his meditation time his first time there, he obviously notices a cat tied to a pillar.
But out of respect… maybe out of the simple fact he was the new guy on campus… he didn’t ask.
He came to assume, over time, that this cat tied to the pillar was a very important/ serious religious tradition.
The cat lived a very happy/healthy/attention filled life… all while the monks keep tying him to the pillar during meditation… but the cat inevitably grew old and his day comes too.
Well immediately upon the cat’s death, in honor of this important religious practice, the abbot convenes a group of monks to go out searching the countryside for another black cat to tie to the pillar.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have witnessed the birth of a church tradition.
Sometimes we do things like this, don’t we? We “religious-ize” and “sacred-ize” things that had very practical beginnings.
We apply meaning to ordinary things… us church goin’ folks, we love to do that.
There is a little bit of this going on in our Scripture passage today, isn’t there?
Now! Before we start poking fun at the Pharisees and start pulling apart their seemingly “sacred-ized” traditions of cleanliness, I need to issue us all a warning: It is easy, when we start talking about the law and other people’s practices and traditions… to fall hard into the trap of trivialization.
This is not a trivial matter. Our traditions… our ways…the rules that we follow… they are important matters of the heart.
As hard as it is to love a Pharisee (and even sympathize with them)… If we pause and try to see things from their point of view… well, I think we might be able to tread lightly through this passage.
So let’s step into ancient Galilee for a moment. The Pharisees of Jerusalem had gotten word of a miracle man in the back woods of Galilee. They have heard all about how he has healed the blind, how he has fed the masses, how he has walked on water- and they are intrigued enough to send a delegation of “spies” to Galilee to check thing out.
And what do they find? They find Jesus with his ever-growing band of disciples.
As they follow him…they witness miracles; experience his teachings… but they also see a Rabbi and his flock not obeying the rituals of their people! Specifically they see Jesus and the disciples eating a meal without washing their hands.
And what’s worse! The Pharisees know that Jesus and his folks had spent all morning at the marketplace healing the sick and the lame and the blind… and they dare to not clean themselves of those people before they touched their food…
From the perspective of the Pharisees and the Scribes they see a teacher of the law, defiling the law!
If the Pharisees had a manta, or a family motto it would be this: “Conserve the Law! Conserve our way! Conserve! Conserve!”
When we think about the Cleanliness Tradition of the Jews, we might be temped to draw a direct parallel back to the cat tied to a pillar in the monastery… It just seems so inconsequential… yet, we have to remember that this seemingly simple rule can carry great meaning under its surface.
What likely started as a rule to protect the people of God from unnecessary sicknesses while they wandered the desert… became over time to be an issue of identity.
Reverend Ryan Price, a pastor in Lubbock Texas, pointed out something in a sermon I read a while back: (this is for you geography buffs out there…) If you can picture in your mind a map of the world for a moment, and you zoom in on Israel, you will notice that it sits at a global cross roads. Over to the West you have Europe, to the South you have Africa, and to the North and East you have all the different cultures of the Ancient Near East and Asia. The nation of Israel was an important nexus that you would have to pass through to get to anywhere else. Not to mention they were constantly at war because other big powerful countries saw the value of owning that nexus…
The Pharisees were constantly concerned about assimilation.
There was a great fear of being swallowed up by the other cultures around them. The Jews, during this time, were holding tight to their practices in order to maintain their identity. Things like keeping dietary laws and upholding purity rituals… it gave the people identity, and made them distinct.
During the Exodus, God lead the Israelite people away from oppression… but God also led them all away from everything that defined them. Their homes were abandoned, their work (even if it was forced) was left unfinished. Their world, their sense of culture…fractured.
So, it is no wonder that one of the first things God does as the people wander the dessert was to give them laws.
First, they receive the big ten! The commandments. They teach us about a God that is jealous for our love and attention, and gives us boundaries on how best to relate to each other and to keep in close relationship with the divine. And then through the years as the people wander and wonder and experience… they are (dare I say…) gifted with hundreds more rules! Why? Because God wanted them to have that structure, that culture again… God loved them enough and understood them enough to bless them with an identity. It kept them united. They upheld the law together- that was their collective mission.
It gave them something to cling to when their world was fractured!
Who here has seen Fiddler on the Roof?
It’s the same story!
Tevye, a poor man in a rural town, faced an era of big time political unrest (a culture fractured)… The poor guy, he has five daughters!
Everyday he wakes up in a world where he just seems to be a little in over his head- as a father, as a Jew, as an oppressed citizen. But he tries so hard to be a man of integrity! He tries so hard to be an upstanding Jew. And, bless him… just about every time he attempts to quote the “Good Book” he’s wrong.
And if you asked Tevye how he holds it together, how he keeps his balance in an ever changing world…
He would say: “That I can tell you in one word! Tradition!”
Tevye goes on to say: We have traditions for everything! How to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear our clothes…” he pulls on his prayer shawl and says, “This is to remind me that I am God’s! And this hat, it reminds me who I belong to! You might ask; how did this tradition get started… I’ll tell you. I don’t know… But it is a tradition. And because of our traditions, (and this is the part that I love…) everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do… Without traditions our life would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!”
I feel for poor Tevye. It would be really trying to have three of your five daughter, all in “marry-able age”, bucking the system. All three of them find their own husbands! They reject the tradition of the honored matchmaker. And it drives him batty. The first daughter, after she is already betrothed to someone by the matchmaker… gets engaged to a childhood friend who she is head over heals for. The second daughter, gets engaged without even consulting her father… and her fiancé doesn’t even want permission… And each time… Tevye is faced with this situation of having to bend his rules… bend his traditions! He loves his daughters, he wants to see them happy and successful… but Tevye certainly doesn’t like having the traditions of their people challenged.
But God is faithful! Opening Tevye’s eyes to the gift of love right in front of him.
But the third daughter, goes too far for poor Tevye, she wants to marry a Gentile.
Tevye has this inner war. On the one hand, he loves his daughter. But he fears that they will lose their identity as the people of God. But on the other hand he says, “No! There is no other hand! There is only so far I can bend before I break.”
Have you ever had a moment like that as a parent?
Well, the Pharisees in the Gospel of Mark, unlike Tevye… are unyielding even in the best of times. They do not tolerate the bending of traditions… lest the whole identity of their people break with them!
They might have a lot of cats leashed to pillars (so to speak)… a lot of traditions that seem silly and are distracting to the big picture… But a tradition is a tradition. An identity is an identity.
Stories like this one in Mark, and like the Fiddler on the Roof invite us to look at our hearts- to examine our traditions, to reflect on our identity. But, even more than that, they push us… they push us to examine our lives for those things that distract from our purpose as Christ followers.
So, I ask you, what are those things that clutter our hearts? When have our rules, our beloved traditions leaned dangerously into the territory of legalism? Worshiping the tradition or the rule itself… rather than Christ?
When Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees for his lack of integrity and for flouting the Jewish identity… this is his rather stinging response (and I want us all to hear this, with our own traditions in mind), “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me…”
When I first read that with an open heart this week, it felt like I got smacked upside the head.
And you know what (oddly enough) I think Jesus might be right. Every time I have clung to a false identity… God has found a way to challenge it with the audacity of grace. Teaching me yet again that the brevity of God’s love cannot be contained or experienced through traditions or rules. But only in messy messy relationship with our Lord.
As the Pharisees cling to the law for the sake of who they are… What if I told you that our identity as Christians does not lie with the law… But our identity lies in Christ?
As Reggie Weaver said, “It’s okay to have rituals. It’s okay to have traditions. But our rituals and traditions must never become our god. Rituals and traditions will not save us. They will not make us clean. If we want to be clean we must look, not at the works of our hands, but at our hearts.”
To be truly clean, that comes from our heart. It comes from clinging to our identity in Christ.
Tevye, would say that discerning what is right is a balancing act. We try and live righteous lives balancing like a shaking Fiddler on the roof.
But Children of God… here is the Good News! With Christ, we don’t have to be shaky. The grace of God in our hearts is the firmest of foundations.
As I told the children earlier during the Kid’s Talk. Rules are important they tell us who we are and how we are to act. They are so very important… but we are ultimately held accountable to the greatest of all rules: Living by love.
Christ was very clear on what he expects of us: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul and Love your neighbor as yourself. The greatest commandment of them all. As Christ said, any law, any prophecy hangs on this… It all hangs on love.
- Pastor Ryon Price from Second Baptist Church in Lubbock Texas inspired the cat in the monastery story and the idea for Fiddler on the Roof. He deserves a big shout out! But I can no longer find the link to his sermon… But thank you for the inspiring message pastor!