Missing the Point

One of the crosses I have to bear as Rector of this parish, is that I have to attend a lot of meetings. The worst type are what I call the wittering meetings, where people get sidetracked and witter on about unimportant details, while the important issues are not addressed, or conclusions reached. Worst of all is when these meetings take place in my house and I cannot leave! Jesus called such concentration on trivial detail ‘straining a gnat and swallowing a camel’.

Jesus has no patience with the Pharisees (Mark 7.1-23); they ignore the challenge of Jesus’ teaching about the essentials of faith and fixate on his disciples who fail to observe the finer details of Jewish rules on ritual hygiene. Many of these rules were of their own creation, to add to the Torah. They were intended to clarify how the Law should be kept, but became an excessive burden for the people, and the main focus of attention for the Pharisees. They concentrated on the externals of their religion and ignored what lies at the heart of it; as Isaiah says, they pay lip-service to God.

There is an apparent inconsistency in the teaching of Jesus. In St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says he has come not to abolish the Law, but to complete it. Not one letter or stroke of the pen will be taken away from it, until everything is accomplished. Jesus meets with Moses at the Transfiguration because he is the culmination of the Law which Moses laid down. He reveals the Law, in himself, as the living embodiment of God’s commandment.

Here he appears to wipe away the Jewish food laws. His teaching is taken to nullify the Torah, by saying there is no need to worry about the regulations on ritual washing, because one is not sullied by what goes into a person rather than what comes out of a person. Mark adds here in a sweeping statement ‘thus he declared all foods clean.’ For this reason, Christians are not bound by the Jewish food laws, and we can enjoy a bacon sandwich or a prawn cocktail. Christianity emerges from the chrysalis of the Old Covenant, bound by physical laws into the mature splendour of the New Covenant, with the accent on the command to love.

The prophets repeatedly condemned the failure of the priests and people to keep the spirit of the Law. Their religion had become quantified, defining what was the minimum they needed to do to get away with it. The scribes looked at getting around the Law. They were similar to financial advisers who recommend measures to avoid the payment of taxes.

Jesus cannot bear this miserly, grudging approach to the law, a mechanistic keeping of the rules, just going through the motions. Jesus gets to the heart of the matter; it is not whether someone is ritually clean or not which is important, but how one lives one’s life. Godly behaviour is what Jesus wants and expects.

The apostle James says that we must be doers of the word and not just hearers. Faith must be translated into action. He says that faith without works to back it up is dead.

Those who are not of our tradition might think that we are obsessed with externals. Our liturgical actions are indeed important to us. Only the best should be good enough for the Lord. If we truly love the Lord, then we will want to ensure that the Mass is carried out with dignity and reverence. All the details have a point, nothing is pointless, they point to the fact that a great guest comes among us, our Lord himself. Fr Tooth of Hatcham in South London in Victorian times was imprisoned for ritualist practices, but he told the Bishop of London, ‘on matters which involve the expression of doctrine, (that is the real presence of Christ) we can neither deny the doctrine nor withdraw the ritual.’

We must be careful not to let care over details cloud the reason for the use: keeping Christ at the centre. We must not think that simply turning up to Mass is sufficient; that so long as we are here, God will work his magic on us and put us right, that we need not put in any effort.

Moses told the people they must not add or subtract from the Law God gave them. We must be careful not to take what suits us and ignore what doesn’t suit us. This could potentially justify all sorts of bad behavior, such as those in the list Jesus gives of what pollutes a person. 

We should avoid getting so bogged down in the minutiae of life that we neglect what is truly important, that we strain the gnat and swallow the camel. We must not miss the point, about why Jesus came: to reveal to us God’s love in all its fullness.