Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Voting for a Lost Cause--Tripping over Ritual

Voting for a Lost Cause--Tripping Over Religious Ritual


In my last blog, the question was asked, "How far are you from the kingdom of God?" This question is based on the claim Jesus made of the scribe questioning him in Mark 12. Jesus states, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Not far appears to indicate, not quite there. That leads me to ask a second question. What are the stumbling blocks that keep this Scribe from the kingdom of God.



Today, I want to look at one of those stumbling blocks--chiefly, religious ritual.



Previously, in Mark 12, Jesus had good rapport with the Scribe. In Mark 12: 38-40, it appears that Jesus reverses course. In this text, Jesus offers warnings about the Scribes. They like to wear long robes in public, assume places of honor, and offer long winded prayers for the attention it receives from others. The question becomes "Why?" Why does Jesus reverse course. To get to that answer, we must go to the gloss [added on commentary] on the teaching he made on the greatest commandments. Jesus adds this, "This greatest commandment of the Torah is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." Whole burnt offerings and sacrifices are what priests offer in the Temple.



We find 2 pieces that can move us along in the answer. First, while teaching in the temple, Jesus asserts that the Messiah is Lord of David--claiming the authority of the Messiah. Earlier in Mark, Jesus defines himself as the Messiah. Second, the first verses of chapter 13 of  Mark has Jesus announce the destruction of the temple. With the destruction of the temple, and the claim of the authority of the Messiah, Jesus calls for a change of devotion. Devotion is moved from the offerings and sacrifices offered in the temple to a life of discipleship, following Jesus as the Messiah. Being a disciple and following Jesus is loving God with all heart, soul, strength, and mind. Loving God completely leads us to love others as dearly as those who are most precious to us.



This is the stumbling block. No religious ritual, no matter how honorable, can come close to fulfilling the commandment of loving God.



It is important for us to recall that Israel not only believed that God spoke to them, but that they could stand in the presence of God. Standing in the presence of the Almighty One, the Holy One required the purity of the supplicant. Around this desire for purity came the practices--rituals of cleansing--that prepared a person to be in the presence of God. The risk of practices--of rituals--is that the practices take on more meaning than the reality to which they point. The priority of purity, over being in the presence of God, is the potential pitfall. An establishment gathers and is created around the need for purity. Establishments soon strive to be self-perpetuating. Supplicants become seen as means to support the ongoing work of the establishment. Ritual practices, then, take on a call for conformity, requiring its adherents to fulfill the obligations of the establishment. Those who do not are diminished as unclean and unfaithful--sinners to use theological language.



Religious practices create a population of people that are homogeneous. Religious practices regulate by determining who is in, who is out, who is to be honored, and who is to be shamed. In doing so, those who are invited to stand in the presence of God, may be ostracized for not fulfilling the obligations of the establishment--in the case of this text, the temple cult.



In our own faith communities, we are challenged to be ask, "Do our worshipping communities look like the world in which we live?"



Follow the rules, or follow Jesus. One is close to the kingdom of God, the other is part of the kingdom of God.


Biblical commentary resources are by C. Clifton Black in his commentary on Mark, published by Abingdon Press, Nashville.

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