As you can tell by the number of times I mention monks in sermons, I’m fascinated by them. The ones at the monastery I’ve visited in South Carolina are part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as Trappists. That “Strict Observance” catches your ear, doesn’t it? It means they worship seven times a day, observe hours of silence every day, things like that. I think they’re vegetarians. Lunch is the main meal of the day, and it usually features some sort of casserole. I’ve never been brave enough to ask what’s in it, but I’ve never detected meat. Breakfast and dinner are on your own, and they never include meat.
I’m fascinated by the monks, but no, I’ve never, ever, been tempted to become one. I like talking, I don’t like waking up at the ungodly hour, if you’ll excuse the expression, of three am, which is when they get up every morning. And I like meat. I’m sure somebody has done a study to see if monks like these live longer than average, but I haven’t seen it.
But we have to admit, it’s fascinating that a few people choose to live their lives this way. And unless they’re ill or disabled, it’s not like they can say, I think I’ll sleep ‘til six this morning. No. It’s three am every morning. And it’s not like they can say, I’ll have just a brief conversation with someone during the grand silence today. No. It’s the grand silence every day. And this is not something you do March through October then go hang out in Florida for the winter. Last but not least, it’s not something you do for two or three years and then go do something else. Generally speaking, you’re in it for life.
So what intrigues me about it all is the question, are these guys onto something? Do they know something we don’t? Are they in some way more in touch with God than we are?
That’s something of the question addressed in the story we’re going to hear from Mark today. It’s one of the stories of Jesus’ encounters with some Pharisees and scribes. In one sense the Pharisees were like the Trappists, in that they stuck to the rules. They were those who strictly observed the law, as found in the First Testament and as preserved and interpreted in the detailed explanations of the law. They believed that virtually every aspect of life was supposed to be regulated by religious rules. They spent their lives working to follow every detail of the biblical law. Likewise with the scribes.
As we might imagine, this led some of the scribes and Pharisees to think that they were more faithful, closer to God, than everyone else. It’s always important for us to remember that when we read about these conflicts between Jesus and the scribes, Pharisees, and sometimes Sadducees, he’s not having a conflict with Judaism. Jesus was never anything other than a faithful Jew. His argument with these particular folks is over how to live out one’s faith in God.
The answer of the scribes and Pharisees was, in what is, I am sure, oversimplified terms, follow the rules. Psalm one begins, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night.” By far the longest Psalm, 119, devotes all one hundred seventy-six verses to talking about how wonderful and important it is to follow the law. In other words, this was, and still is one stream of Judaism. And Jesus takes issue with it.
The story in Mark says some scribes and Pharisees notice that some of Jesus’ disciples are not following all the regulations about washing their hands before eating. Apparently some were, apparently including Jesus. We happen to know today that washing one’s hands before we eat is a good idea, getting rid of germs-wise. But in that day it was more ritual than sanitation. So the Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus, “How come all your people don’t do what they’re supposed to do?”
Jesus calls them hypocrites. He quotes the prophet Isaiah at them, then says they’re keeping the tradition but not the commandments about how we are to treat other people. That part gets skipped in today’s reading, by the way, but it’s there. Trust me. Then he says, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” He goes on to say that it’s not what’s in the stomach that counts, whether or not it gets there by means of recently washed hands, I suppose, but rather what is in our hearts.
One of the interesting things about the Bible is that it was written by a lot of different people over a very long period of time, and that it contains different points of view about what it means, what it looks like, to live out the faith. The scribes and Pharisees, and Psalms one and one nineteen represent one stream of thought. It says, being God’s people means following a certain set of rules. Those folks believed that right relationship with God meant keeping laws, not just the ten commandments, but all six hundred some odd First Testament laws.
But when we turn to the prophets, we get another idea. For example, the prophet Amos, saying he is speaking for God, says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Take away from me the noise of your songs. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Likewise, in Isaiah we hear God say, “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs, or of goats. …cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” We get the picture. The prophets, speaking for God, say being faithful is not about rules and rituals. Rather, being God’s people is about how we treat others, how we help those in need.
Jesus sides with the prophets. He says God doesn’t particularly care about how you wash your cups and pots. He says God cares about other things. He even says it’s not about “whatever goes into a person from outside.” If he’s talking about food, that’s a pretty radical thing to say, considering the importance of the kosher food laws. He says it’s not what goes into the stomach but what comes out of the heart that matters to God.
In biblical times, the heart was thought of as the seat of a person’s will and decision-making. We tend to attribute those to the mind, but we understand. We talk about what’s in a person’s heart as being what is most important to them, what they care about the most. We say things like, “in our heart of hearts, we believe that Oreos are the best cookies ever.”
And it’s not a way back then and there debate, is it? Rules versus relationships, we might call it, is still very much alive and well as a topic of conversation in the church today. There are definitely those who say, you have to do things the right way, meaning their way. Sometimes entire denominations say that. A couple hundred years ago or so some people like Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone began to say, let’s get away from all the picky little rules everybody has established and just do things they way they were done in the Bible, especially the New Testament. They thought that made a lot of sense and that it would be really appealing to all Christians, bringing all followers of Christ together. It did make sense, but it didn’t persuade all Christians to give up doing things in all sorts of different ways. Instead, it led to the start of a new denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
But even in our own lives, we feel the tension, don’t we? On the one hand, we see the importance of having and following rules, even when it comes to our faith. We worship on Sunday because that’s the day Jesus rose from the grave. It’s not bad to worship on other days, but Sunday worship is a good rule. There’s more to right living than following the ten commandments, but they’re not bad, as rules go. We know that in general, we need some rules to keep our lives and our journey of faith between the lines.
On the other hand, we Disciples of Christ believe that rules need to be kept to a bare minimum. Believe that Jesus is the Christ. Offer communion to everyone every Sunday, and at other times. Let every congregation do their own thing. If that’s a rule. Um…that’s about it. Otherwise, I think we’re on the side of the prophets and Jesus. We believe that what counts more than following a long list of rules is how we treat one another, both inside the church and everyone else, especially those in need. We tend to say the rules that matter are love God and love your neighbor. We tend to say, it’s what’s inside, what comes from the heart, that matters most.
I’m sure the monks would say, if asked, that they do not believe they are any better Christians or have any special connection to God compared to the rest of us. I’m confident they would say that being a monk is they way they have chosen to live out their faith. In fact, one of the reasons they get up at three am every day is so that they can be in prayer on behalf of the world while the rest of us are still asleep. I think that’s pretty cool. Prayer on behalf of the world is one of the reasons they do what they do and are who they are. Another reason is to provide hospitality to those who need a temporary break from the usual routine of life. On the whole, even though they follow a bunch of rules, they are concerned not so much with what goes in from the outside, but what is in the heart and what comes from the heart. They would say it’s not outside in, but inside out. Amen.