Meaningful Rituals and Practices

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Just before this passage, Jesus had responded to yet another critique from a group of Pharisees who had come out from Jerusalem to harass him. They had asked him why his disciples kept breaking the traditions of the elders, not washing their hands when they eat. So Jesus summons the crowds to gather around and listen to his response. This was, after all, a ʺteaching moment.ʺ

He said: ʺHear and understand. It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles the man; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.ʺ (Mt. 15: 11) Every time I read this passage I can hear that little voice of my conscience saying, ʺWell, shut my mouth!ʺ It is one of those moments of sudden clarity. The light bulb goes on and you experience the shock of insight. Jesus’ response to those officious officials of the Temple challenged them, as well as the crowds and us, with a troubling truth. When ʺtraditionsʺ become ʺlawsʺ they lose their original meaning. The traditions are still true, but they have become only meaningless gestures and in doing so they have lost their original power and meaning. The outward gestures have become more meaningful than the truth they originally revealed and honored. It is not the gesture that saves, but the reason behind the gesture that is important. When the gesture is done in recognition of the meaning behind it, the Spirit is still in it and it is meaningful. When it is done solely as a requirement of the law, without understanding the meaning behind it, it is blind, lifeless, and without true meaning.

The other message here is that the problem is not what goes into one’s mouth, but what comes out of it in the form of things like cursing, judgmental accusations, or worse, lies. If the ʺlaws,ʺ or the traditions, rituals and gestures of our faith become more important than God, whom they are intended to lead us to, we tend to become judgemental. We can begin to accuse others of being unrighteous, or heretical, or even damned, simply because they do not observe the public rituals ʺproperly,ʺ according to one’s own practices. When we do this we tend to judge unjustly. We lose sight of God, focusing too much on the minutiae. Worse, like the Pharisees, we can tend to judge others out of self-righteousness, with neither understanding, nor mercy. Hence the importance Jesus’ admonition, ʺDo not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.ʺ (Luke 6: 37)

The disciples get worried here having observed the response of the Pharisees. They pull Jesus aside and say to him, ʺDo you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?ʺ They still fear the power of the Pharisees. But Jesus responds boldly, ʺEvery plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.ʺ

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This comment is directed at the disciples, and us, personally. Jesus has brought the disciples, and us, to a new horizon point here. He is openly and clearly leading his disciples away from the teaching authority of the Pharisees here. He has done what he can to bring the Pharisees around, but they remain recalcitrant to the truth that Jesus is teaching openly and authoritatively to the common people. He is challenging the disciples to no longer listen to the teaching of the Pharisees for their teaching is no longer of God, but of their own making. They have become blind. They can no longer lead the people to God, but only to their own laws. They have turned away from the spirit that is behind the law and turned their religion into nothing more than the strict observance of external forms and ceremonies. As a result, they have become self-righteous, sanctimonious, and hypocritical. The Pharisees have become more concerned for the law than for God, and in so doing, they have become spiritually blind. Those, then, who listen to them will also become spiritually blind. When the blind lead the blind, in practical terms, they will fall into the same unseen pits together. But in spiritual terms, the ʺpitʺ here can be understood as a clear metaphor for hell.

This is not an argument against traditions, sacramental rituals and gestures. Traditions, sacramental rituals and gestures that are still alive in the Spirit, still point directly to God and not to themselves, therefore, they remain meaningful and very rich means through which we can draw closer to God. If they are done not to remember God, but just as mere, thoughtless gestures for public consumption, or presumably to represent how ‘holy’ one is, then they have become Pharisaical, and blind, putting one in danger of falling into the pit.

Jesus is, for the first time, telling the disciples (and us) to turn away from the teachings of the Pharisees, and to look, rather, at him; to listen to him; to follow his example. He will put it more directly later when he tells them, ʺI am the way, the the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.ʺ (John 14: 6) Jesus was not against meaningful tradition, ritual, or gestures. Remember, he instituted the tradition, the ritual, and the gestures of the Eucharist. ʺAnd he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.ʺ (Luke 22: 19)

The problem for the Pharisees is that they had forgotten the meaning behind the traditions, the rituals, and the gestures by putting all of the emphasis on those things alone. They had turned those things into the law. They had forgotten that tradition, ritual, and gesture are merely the means of faith, not the ends. The truth is that the more beautiful and meaningful the living traditions, the rituals, and the gestures, the more they will be effective means that draw us ever closer to God. For the Pharisees the laws had become the ends, rather than God and, therefore, they became blind to the real end of faith.

Lord let our eyes always be on you. May all that we do be means for drawing closer to you. Let us never lose sight of you. Enrich our love for you and our understanding of your truth through our living traditions, our living rituals, and our living gestures. Amen.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.