But as our conversation progressed, the lay pastor began to lecture me about the scriptures and how the King James Bible was the only authoritative word of God and all other translations were of the Devil because “they took words out and changed the meaning of God’s word.” Well, at this point the lay pastor was showing his ignorance of linguistics and his own prejudice towards the King James Bible. Standing at a graveside really didn’t seem the appropriate venue for a theological debate, but that didn’t seem to stop him. He proceeded to point an accusing finger at me and said, “You ARE going to preach God’s word from the King James Bible, aren’t you?” I wasn’t going to argue, “Of course, I have no objection to that.” He continued to point at me and said, “You DO READ the King James Bible for your learning, don’t you?” … “Well … no,” I replied. He had a stunned look on his face. “I prefer to read the scriptures in Greek and Hebrew,” I told him, “I find the original languages to be rich and enlightening myself.” He didn’t know what to say to that … so he walked away.
One of the things we humans tend to do is confuse the means with the ends. As I vowed at my ordination, I do believe the Holy Scriptures to be the word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation. But note what this does not say: it does not say all things in the Holy Scriptures are necessary to salvation. There is some really weird stuff in the Bible, if we're completely honest. The Scriptures are a tool for us, inspired by God, written by humans to instruct us and form us into Godly people. But when we confuse them with God or think God only speaks in Elizabethan English, then we have a problem! It is called idolatry.
In today’s encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus takes them on for confusing the means with the ends. The presenting issue is the tradition of washing hands which, interestingly, is not commanded in the Torah at all. Now for us in the 21st century, eating with unwashed hands seems to be not just unwise but unhealthy too. But remember, this all happened long before germs and bacteria had been discovered! The washing of hands and other vessels as Mark describes, was a tradition that developed over time in the Jewish community. It came out of the oral tradition which was codified in the Mishnah and then in the Talmud … but it is not in the Torah.
This tradition was born out of a desire to make all aspects of Jewish life holy. We often refer to this as the hallowing of time. The intention was to draw your mind and heart to God even through the most mundane activities – like washing hands or pots and pans. We have similar practices in our tradition: the use of the liturgical forms in the Book of Common Prayer, the practice of reading the Daily Office, the various pietistic practices like crossing yourself or genuflecting that we exercise in worship. All of these come from our tradition and can draw us closer to God.
If we believe that only our outward behaviors are what make us Christian, we have mistaken the means for the ends. This is what Jesus is pointing out: one can do all the right outward actions and still have a sinful heart which unleashes the unholy. We all have sin in our hearts – this is the truth. This is why we cannot merely look within ourselves to save ourselves. If we could have somehow “evolved” our way into being better, don’t you think we would have done it by now? If our traditions are merely a pietistic show which allows us to dodge the sin within us and mask it in religiosity, we are perpetuating sin in the name of God and this is most dangerous. If, on the other hand, our traditions move us to unmask and confess the sin within us that it may be healed, then our traditions are moving us towards God and not a false religiosity.
Jesus said, “… there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile.” It is important to note that the sin inside makes us unclean and confusing the means for the ends is sinful. But also note that what comes from outside us conversely has the power to save us – namely God’s very self which is transcendent and wholly Other. This God comes to us through Means of Grace: Bread and Wine/Body and Blood, the Scripture and the prayers.
It may appear somewhat paradoxical to say that our outward traditions and behaviors both are and are not important. They are certainly not important if the behaviors and traditions are merely a false face on a corrupted heart. They are not important if they become litmus tests for who is a “true believer” and who is not. If, however, the behaviors and traditions are moving us to more honesty and shaping our hearts to be more inclined towards the true religion James speaks of – caring for the most vulnerable among us and keeping ourselves from the corrupting influences of the world – then the behaviors and traditions have a purpose: to draw us closer to God and shape us into more Christ-like people. It’s often been noted that behavior proceeds belief – we behave our way into new beliefs. This is captured in one of our Anglican traditional sayings: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi – the law of praying is the law of believing or “how we pray shapes how we believe.”
So it isn’t whether we read a particular translation of the Bible, use the Book of Common Prayer, pray the Daily Office, cross ourselves or genuflect which makes us Christ-like. But if these practices help us be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, to be doers of the word and not just hearers, to care for the most vulnerable among us and resist the corruptions of the world, the flesh and the devil, then we will honor God with both our lips and our hearts.