(Modified 2021-08-29: Added audio recording of this sermon.)
Sometimes when we hear the Bible translated into our own language, it’s helpful to also translate into our time and place.
In listening to the conversation we heard about in the Gospel that was just read, with its references to ritual hand washing and dish washing and washing of groceries you brought home from the market, I found myself getting distracted by the obvious parallels to life under a pandemic, when those aren’t really the connections we need to be making. But then I came across a retelling of the story from a Rev. Charles Hoffacker from Greenbelt Maryland. He’s reimagined what a version of this conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees might sound like in 21st century North America.
“One day, in a small Southern city, a group of God-fearing, Bible-believing people came up to Jesus to ask him something. “We’ve noticed that when your disciples go to high school football games, they don’t take part when a lot of us spontaneously say the Lord’s Prayer. They don’t even mumble it. What gives?”
Jesus replied, “It’s attitudes like that that make me think I should have copyrighted that prayer. You just don’t get it! First of all, if you plan to do something, then it’s not spontaneous. That’s an abuse of language. But that’s not the only abuse that’s going on. You can pray anywhere: in church, at home, in your car, even at a football game. Believe me, I know.
“But I suspect that some of you like to shout the prayer I gave you at football games, not so much because you want to talk to the Father, but because you want to look good in your own eyes. That’s what I was getting at when I gave some of the Pharisees a hard time for praying on street corners. It wasn’t the location. Street corner, football field, church — it’s all the same. The problem is with your attitude.
“Also, I didn’t give you the Lord’s Prayer for you to shout it at some public event and think you’re better than the people of other religions, or those of no religion, who feel shut out of a high school football game because you want to show that there are a lot of Christians in attendance.
“You need to be careful! You’re on thin ice! It may just be that some of those people of other religions and of no religion will end up leading the parade into the kingdom of God, together with the prostitutes and tax collectors I talked about two thousand years ago, with folks like you bringing up the rear, if you make it at all. After all, grace works in mysterious ways.”
Maybe that’s what Jesus would say if today’s Gospel took place now rather than back then. Certainly the question underlying this story is as alive now as it ever was. Just as the Jewish people were in the time of Jesus, Christians today are a people with rich traditions of spiritual practice. But when it comes to our religious traditions and rituals, how can we keep the main thing the main thing? How can we live the good news of Jesus so that it remains good news for us and for people around us, whether or not they are Christians? How do we ensure our devotion remains beautiful rather than turning into ugly ideology?
Jesus criticized a portion of his own community for paying God lip service, while really they were exalting human precepts and abandoning divine commandments. Like Jesus always does in the Gospels, he cut through the noise of their argument to the real issue: their hearts were far from God.
Rather than practicing a spirituality that changed them through grace, the Pharisees in the story tried to impose an ideology that made other people conform to their hard-and-fast principles. Their concern was not heaven’s purposes, but their own power and control. Such misuse of religion is not unique to the Pharisees. It remains forever a possibility, because it’s in our nature as human beings. And so we must consider the true purpose of Christian devotion. Here’s one possibility of a faithful answer to this question.
The entire apparatus of Christian devotion — the Lord’s Prayer and the Great Litany, rosaries and revivals, Prayer Book and Hymnal, icons and incense, Bible study and Sunday school, silent retreats and Cursillo reunions, Gospel music and Gregorian chant, public liturgy and private prayer, sacraments and sermons, holy water and holy rolling, giving thanks at a birth and praying at a death — the entire apparatus of Christian devotion, in its diversity and complexity, serves one great, overarching purpose that scripture and tradition explain in their frequent references to the heart, the core of the human person.
Christian devotion is meant to help gain and maintain a new heart, a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone, a heart that is alive not dead, compassionate rather than selfish, hospitable, not judgmental. Christian devotion in all its myriad forms is all about softening the heart, preventing it from becoming hard, keeping it tender. It’s about, in a spiritual sense, having a healthy heart.
It is of a heart like that that St. Isaac the Syrian speaks in a passage thirteen centuries old:
“When someone with such a heart as this thinks of the creatures and looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears because of the overwhelming compassion that presses on his heart. The heart of such a one grows tender, and he cannot endure to hear of or to look upon any injury, even the smallest suffering, inflicted upon anything in creation. Therefore this person never ceases to pray with tears even for the dumb animals, even for the enemies of truth and for all who do harm to it, asking that they may be guarded and receive God’s mercy. And for the reptiles also he prays with a great compassion, which rises up endlessly in his heart after the example of God.” [Quoted in Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1979), p.157.]
The heart of which St. Isaac speaks is compassionate, hospitable, vast, able to welcome even the least-cool animals, even enemies of truth. The purpose of Christian devotion is to invite God to create and maintain such a heart in each one of us. Therefore, when we assess, as we must, the use of some element of Christian tradition in a particular circumstance, the question to ask is: Does this practice, in this circumstance, contribute to a living, healthy, compassionate heart, or does it not?
This central question takes precedence over other questions we may prefer to answer, such as: Is this practice ancient? Is it contemporary? Do I like it? Will it increase church attendance? Does it make me feel in control? No, the real question has to do with whether or not hearts are made and kept compassionate.
Here is an insight from the Lutheran scholar Jaroslav Pelikan that may prove helpful. Pelikan distinguishes between tradition and traditionalism in this way: Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead.
Like some of the contemporaries of Jesus, we are mired in traditionalism when our spiritual inheritance is not used to open our hearts to becoming more compassionate. This is the dead faith of the living. But when we use that wonderful spiritual inheritance left to us by preceding generations for its true purpose, then tradition lives and flows and opens us to greater life. Our hearts become larger; more compassionate. This is the living faith of the dead, or, rather, the living faith of those who have died and now live forever because their hearts have come to resemble the heart of God.
Let us pray.
O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit, and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.