Over the line, Smokey: Sunday Reflection – HotAir
This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 7: 1–8, 14–15, 21–23:
When the Pharisees and some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate with unclean hands, that is, without washing. —For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, not to eat without washing your hands carefully, in keeping with the tradition of the elders. And when they leave the market they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and teapots and beds. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow the tradition of the elders, but eat a meal with unclean hands? He answered, Isaiah prophesied well about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You ignore the commandment of God, but you cling to human tradition. “
He called the crowd back together and said, “Everyone listen to me and understand. Nothing that enters you from the outside can contaminate that person; but what comes from within is what pollutes.
“From within people, from their hearts, come bad thoughts, lack of chastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deception, debauchery, envy, blasphemy, arrogance , The madness. All these evils come from within and pollute ”.
What is the purpose of the law? Is it to serve the people and the Lord, or is it an end in itself? Much of the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels revolves around this question, and it emerges in every interaction that Jesus has with the scribes and Pharisees. In this Gospel reading, the question revolves around ritual cleansing, but other similar challenges would arise about keeping the Sabbath, the authority to speak about the law, and much more.
This reminds me of one of the subtext of one of my favorite movies, The big lebowski. Walter Sobchak is in many ways a great example of a Pharisee throughout the film, often technically correct or prophetic, but so authoritative that Walter ends up making everything worse. When Walter asks one of his favorite questions during these episodes: “Am I wrong?” – the Dude gives a precise answer: “You are not mistaken, Walter. You are just a [expletive]. “
Nowhere is this parallel stronger than in an early bowling sequence. When a competing bowler named Smokey apparently crosses the foul line, Walter correctly assesses the foul and orders the scorer to score a zero. When both Smokey and The Dude argue against it, Walter becomes increasingly agitated until he pulls out a pistol and threatens to shoot Smokey unless the law is applied. “Has the whole world gone crazy?” Walter asks. “Am I the only one who gives a [expletive] about the rules?
Was Walter wrong? Technically no, but that’s not the problem. The rules for bowling exist for a reason, but it is not to enforce the death penalty. They exist to serve bowlers in their enjoyment of competition and to facilitate the social experience as well as the game. By turning the rules into an excuse to terrorize someone and shut down any challenge to the claim, Walter has made the rules more important than the people they are meant to serve.
In our first reading of Deuteronomy today, Moses explains that the law has a clear purpose. It is not about imprisoning the Lord’s people, but about facilitating their mission to bring the Word to the whole world. The ancient nation of Israel was destined for evangelism, a nation of priests and prophets to declare the Lord’s love for all. Moses instructs them to “observe them carefully, for thus you will give evidence of your wisdom and understanding to the nations.”
Fifteen hundred years later, the mission had been forgotten but the law remained, and for the Pharisees and scribes it had become a mission in itself. Somehow, they had made the law an idol, worshiping it instead of seeing it as a window to serve the people and the Lord. Jeremiah prophesied about a very similar outcome with the first temple, warning that the Jews had become arrogant about the presence of the Lord and assumed that they could not be conquered even if they defied God in their actions and thoughts.
And of course, as Jesus repeatedly pointed out, the Pharisees and scribes had more corrupt reasons for imposing strict interpretations of the law. That put them in positions of power, abusing the granted authority that should have been used to serve the people rather than rule them. That story is as old as time; in fact, it is told bluntly in the story of Susanna and the judges (Daniel 13).
Like Walter does with Smokey, the Pharisees use the law and its authority to try to silence Jesus and any dissent from his interpretation and power. Elsewhere in the Gospel, the Pharisees and scribes use the law to trick Jesus, hoping they will kill him to preserve his power. The law intended to serve the Lord and bring His people closer to Him, instead, becomes an instrument of oppression.
The whole mission of Jesus shows us how this loses the meaning of the law. God did not write the law in our hearts to oppress and enslave us; He wrote the law in our hearts to free us from sin and death. Jesus preaches for perspective, reminding his disciples that the law boils down to two essential commandments: love the Lord above all else and love your neighbor as yourself.
This is all the more important when we remember that everybody they fall short of even those expectations. We all cross the line and need forgiveness and grace from the only true Authority. That is why it is important to acknowledge our own sinfulness, confess and ask for forgiveness, so that we can recognize ourselves when our bowling buddies also cross the line from time to time. We are all entering a world of pain, but the point is not impose that, but to help many of us come to a world of joy and love with the Lord through the salvation of Christ.
That is the true “league game” at hand. This is how we’re supposed to roll, man.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used at Mass today in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents just my own point of view, with the intention of helping me prepare for the Lord’s day and perhaps start a meaningful discussion. Reflections from the previous Sunday from the main page can be found here.