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What is true religion? What does the Lord really require?
The Reverend Professor Vernon White Canon Theologian
Sunday, 2nd September 2018 at 11.15 AM
So ‘give heed to the statutes, ordinances, laws, I am teaching you’, said the Lord to Israel repeatedly (we heard in our first reading).
But what are these laws? What does the Lord really require of us?
Culture and religion, often indivisibly, require many things from us: many practices and rules which it’s natural for us to accept if we’re part of that culture - even if some do seem arbitrary, mysterious, unnecessary. When, for example, 18th century explorer Captain Cook encountered Polynesian Islanders he was entirely bewildered by the rules of life they observed (they were relaxed about sex, but then strict about other social rules such as men and women not eating together; that was what they called taboo – prohibited). But what he also discovered is that many of these taboos actually seemed mysterious to the Polynesians themselves too. Yet they complied readily, just because it was part of their culture. And we often do the same.
So when Jesus, as a first century Jewish teacher considered the rules and taboos of his own people he too might have been expected to do the same – to show unquestioning compliance, even if some appeared mysterious.
But he did not. As we heard in the Gospel reading, he sat loose to rules of ritual purity like washing hands and eating utensils. What’s more, he even saw them as potentially dangerous, not just odd or unnecessary. ‘Holding to these traditions’ he said ‘you’re abandoning the real commandments of God.’ For what he saw was how easily some ritual rules of religious culture had become lazy substitutes and displacements for what God really required: that is, a faith of inner integrity which honours God and other people substantively, not just ritually; a faith which doesn’t just do religious talk and religious things but actively cares for people, ‘orphans and widows’ as we heard in the second reading.
Christ, in other words, although himself steeped in these traditions, could and did still challenge them, and ask: ‘but what does the Lord really require?’ This wasn’t unique; other prophets had done it. But he assumed a unique authority to do it. Time and again he assumed authority to unpick, deconstruct, these traditions (as he’d also assumed unprecedented authority to offer forgiveness). This was a divine authority. He was breaking into the long history of God’s revelation and our imperfect human response to it with the sort of decisive judgement only God could give…
And what then was this divine judgement? Was it to dispense with all mysterious religious rules, rituals, customs?
No. Sometimes the original reasons for these rules were perfectly good (reasons of hygiene, for example, or creating a common bond between those who keep them). And even if those original reasons are now redundant and we’re left with rules which just seem mysteries, mystery too can actually be a good thing. It can engender reverence; a reverence which helps form truly good and godly people. The Gospels recognize this too - remember the elderly Simeon and Anna steeped in the Temple rituals who also wholeheartedly welcomed Jesus. And anyway - isn’t there also a call simply to respect other people’s traditions, even if they seem odd or unnecessary? As St Paul insisted to the Romans and Corinthians, even if our faith allows us to dispense with some rules, eat what we like, that doesn’t mean we should offend someone else’s conscience about their rules. Respect for the customs of others, even if strange, is a basic courtesy – so vital in our current pluralist culture.
So no, this isn’t blanket rejection of all religious cultures of ritual and mystery. But it was surely a warning never to absolutize these ritual rules: a warning to keep aware how they can so easily become a substitute for real love of God and others; a warning to keep aware how a religious culture of rules can easily become toxic if it patrols our minds, or even our streets, to make people conform by coercion; a warning to keep aware how these rules can easily become part of a power game of the religious to assert their own superiority and exclude or abuse others. This is what Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov so powerfully dramatized - how a religion which appeals too readily to the arbitrary authority of holy mysteries and religious rules always ends up crucifying people, in one way or another. Exactly what happened to Christ himself. And, shamefully, what still happens to people today.
So in short: this judgement of Christ isn’t denying all human religion, ritual, rules, ordinances: but it is relativizing them, by continuing to ask: ‘but what does the Lord really require from them all?’ A question to which his own life was the clearest possible answer: what’s really required is not any ritual act or rule keeping which we can proudly tick off; it is a relationship of inner integrity with God and others; one in which above all ‘we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’ (words of Micah, one of those earlier prophets Jesus was following).
For most of us here today, I guess, the religious rules and rituals of our ceremonies with candles, bread and wine, will not be strange; they’ll seem natural; and they’ll be rightly cherished as a mystery which has indeed formed people in real godliness. But if for others some of our religion does feel strange, unnecessary, as alien as Polynesian culture seemed to Captain Cook, that’s OK. For what the Gospel today has sharply reminded us all is that these religious things are not the core of faith; they’re only signs and symbols to point to what the Lord really requires. Which is that life of Christ, of inner integrity, of justice, mercy, walking humbly with God.
That’s the sort of life and religion God really requires. That’s the sort of religion, I believe, most likely to convince a world which is increasingly, and sometimes rightly, wary of much religious culture, with its potential to go toxic. And that’s the sort of life and religion we can also trust God to help us live, by His grace, when we ask for His help…the very thing we are doing now in this service of communion with God.