“The unexamined life is not worth living” Socrates as quoted by Plato in the Apology.
Both our reading from the Gospel of Mark and our reading from James’ Letter call us to examine our lives. What is our purpose? What are we trying to accomplish? Are the things we are doing helping or hurting what we claim to be our purpose and goals? What are Jesus and James saying to their respective audiences and how does that apply to us?
Let’s begin with Jesus and the Pharisees.
Within the first century Jewish community in Palestine there were four major divisions. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, as well as the New Testament gives us some insights into these various groups. Josephus names: Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. The fourth group, the Zealots appear to be a secular group of outliers who tried to forcibly free the Jews from Roman control.
The Pharisees stood out from the Sadducees and the Essenes in several ways. They recognized both fate and free will as acting upon one another. The Essenes are strong believers of fate or what Christians call pre-destination and the Sadducees believed only in cause and effect because of our actions – pure free will. The Pharisees recognized both the Torah and the oral traditions, including the Prophets and Writings. What we call the Old Testament as well as some Jewish commentaries. The Sadducees only recognized the Torah and if the Dead Sea scrolls were the property of the Essenes, as many scholars believe, they had a larger collection of writings than the Pharisees. The Sadducees desired to work with the Roman government and recognized the authority of Herod. They included the priests and they had control over the temple and the sacrificial system. The Pharisees rejected both but continued to live in the cities they controlled and to participate in the life of the community. Their focus was on learning all the law, Torah and oral law, and strict observance of daily rituals. They believed holiness of the community would be the salvation of the people. The Essenes fled to the desert rejecting the authority of everyone except their own spiritual leaders and appear to have prepared for the apocalypse. Josephus tells us that the Pharisees were the group most influential on the common people. The Pharisees believed in Resurrection, the Sadducees and the Essenes did not. After the destruction of the temple, they became the founders of Rabbinic Judaism.
I have often wondered if Jesus saw in the Pharisees the greatest hope (aside from his own purpose and plan) for the people and therefore engaged with them more often and pushed them harder to practice what they preached.
The sticky issue that prompts Jesus’ conversation with them was around washing hands. Exodus instructs the priest to wash their hands and feet prior to entering the tent of meeting or approaching the altar. (Exodus 30: 18-20). This had nothing to do with germs. When I use hand sanitizer at the altar it is a germ issue. When I have an acolyte, I normally have them wash my hands with a small amount of water just before I begin the Eucharistic prayer, this is a ceremonial washing with roots in the commandment in Exodus. It is symbolic and helps us make connections to our Jewish roots, but it is not essential. Earlier in Exodus Moses states for God “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19: 6). Over time, seeing all people as priestly by call from God and to ensure the law was being strictly observed, several washing rituals developed. One of these involved everyone washing their hands before they ate. Jesus’ disciples have been observed skipping that ritual and criticized for not following the traditions of the elders.
What Jesus frequently points out to the Pharisees is that they focus on the letter of the law, often looking for loopholes that would allow them to do what they want to do, rather than focusing on the intent of the law. They were quick to criticize others, perhaps because of their belief that only when all of Israel obeyed God’s law would they see their salvation but failing to see that the law was a means and not the end. God gave the law to guide people to be the creatures he intended them to be, full of love and compassion. Instead, by Jesus’ time, the interpretation and enforcement of the law had become a stumbling block that divided people and put heavy burdens on people. Imagine wandering the countryside preaching, healing, and feeding large crowds of people and having to worry about having the proper resources to perform all the washing rituals before you ate, or prayed, or did anything after you touched a sick person.
Jesus reminds the people that all the symbolic things we do mean nothing if they don’t change the heart. If we have forgotten what the symbol means or if we become more concerned about the symbol than the purpose for the symbol, then we have missed the point. Are there things we do in our liturgy that you do not understand why we do it? Are there little rituals in your own life that have become habits without a purpose? Perhaps it is time to examine and evaluate our actions.
James is speaking to a different audience, but his purpose is much the same. James is speaking to a group of Christians, probably twenty to thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In reading Paul’s letters, we can see that early on the churches experienced conflict over a variety of issues. This seems to be part of human nature. When I studied Organizational Behavior, one of the first things I was taught was the concept of FORM, STORM, NORM, PERFORM. James’ group seems to be in the STORM mode. They are wasting time complaining about one another, bickering, fighting amongst themselves, and failing to accomplish their purpose. This is a very easy trap to fall into and none of us are immune. When we are unhappy we like to share with others. The old adage, “Misery loves company” comes from the 16th century play Dr Faustus and the response was the answer to a question about why Satan seeks to enlarge his kingdom. Satan is miserable and seeks to make others miserable. Similarly, in C.S. Lewis Screwtape Letters, Screwtape’s demonic uncle is amazed that God really loves humans and wants to be with them as individuals and does not seek to absorb and destroy them as Satan does. Are we seeking out the company of others to get to know them or just to have a sympathetic ear to listen to our troubles?
What are we doing that makes a positive contribution to our purpose? Do we know our purpose? James tells his congregation it was to “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. “Who are the persons in our world that are in distress? With COVID, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, war, just to name the obvious, the list is long. What ways are we becoming of the world, not just in the world?
There are many lists of both sins and fruits of the Spirit given in the New Testament. In Galatians, Paul lists these back-to-back. Paul stresses that it is not subjection to the law that separates these but following the Spirit vs our own fleshly passions. He states, “now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these… By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Gal 5: 19-21a) Knowing that we are all sinners and all fall short of keeping these lists in their proper place, Paul goes on to remind us to be gentle with one another, helping each other by “bearing one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2).
I would challenge you this week to examine your life. What things bring meaning and joy? What things draw you closer to Christ and your neighbor? What things are just habits without much meaning or purpose? What things draw you away from God and God’s purpose for your life? Where will you put your time, talents, and treasures to work to further God’s kingdom this week?