Sunday, September 2, 2018
I would imagine that images of people cleaning out a pig pen or a cow barn do not rate very high in the social media world. No selfies of slopping out the maure. No instagrams of knee deep in you-know-what. It’s always serene sunsets, awesome dinners, and the vacation to die for. If the social media environment existed when I was young, I think the only reason that our family would have taken a picture of our barn to post for all to see would be the impressive–and depressing–amount of cow manure that froze and accumulated over the course of the winter. Think of the accumulation of 40 cows from December to March. It gives a whole new meaning to spring cleaning! Cleaning out forkload after forkload after forkload of cow dung. Not quite the thing that you want others knowing that you were doing!
Indeed, the whole social media phenomenon has developed its own lexicon of terms to capture the posting of our highlight reel of life rather than the, well, messier side of life. Vanity Validation or Duck Syndrome or Slot Machine Effect address the fascination with and the efforts to curate for the public the best possible version of ourselves. In a recent interview, Sasha, a 16-year-old junior in high school, scrolling slowly through her Instagram feed comments, “See: pretty coffee, pretty girl, cute cat, beach trip. It’s all like that. Everyone looks like they’re having the best day ever, all the time.” Which is, I suppose, what we hope for. Though, if we are honest, we know that such a thing–the best day ever, all the time–does not exist.
While, at first glance, the way that we desire to see ourselves or present ourselves–the best day ever, all the time–may not seem to connect with Jesus’ encounter with the religious leaders in today’s gospel. This phenomenon, however, may be at the heart of the text. More precisely, the desire that we have not to face the foibles that we possess or to acknowledge the mounting excrement that can collect when we deny reality is addressed in the text. We all are invited to do a bit of spring cleaning for our souls when confronted by Jesus.
On the one hand, such spring cleaning for the soul takes the place by reigning in the zealousness of the religious leaders to abide by a strict adherence to the letter of the law rather than the spirit. The religious leaders around Jesus understood that our best day ever, all the time does not exist. The rules that were created to connect the people to the divine were profound ways of helping individuals and the larger community live into the better versions of who we could be. Honor God. Honor parents. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t covet. Don’t lie. Pretty straightforward, and rules that most would have a hard time arguing against. However, in an effort to control what they could, the letter of the law, as Jesus notes, becomes more important than the spirit that stands behind and undergirds the whole of the law. Take, for example, the washing of hands before eating.
As Elisabeth Johnson notes:
In the book of Exodus, before the giving of the law, God tells the people of Israel that they are to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” in the midst of the nations around them (Exodus 19:6). The Pharisees took this calling to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation very seriously. They interpreted the laws concerning priests serving in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. As priests serving in the temple were required to wash their hands before entering the holy place or offering a sacrifice, the Pharisees believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law.
Who wouldn’t want to be reminded of every aspect of life falling under the canopy of God’s law? However, when following the law becomes more important than recognizing life lived under the canopy of God’s law, we run into problems. Inevitably, we run headlong into the perennial human proclivity to create insiders and outsiders, righteous and unrighteous, clean and unclean. The Pharisees, well-intentioned as they are, do just this. Thus, the outrage at Jesus’ friends eating without washing first.
Given this scenario, it would be easy to simply dismiss the law altogether and say that Jesus abolishes the law. No more rules. And there were those in the early community who interpreted Jesus’ teaching exactly in this way. However, what Jesus does in this situation is nothing short of transformational. Raymond Shwager expresses just what a radical thing it is for Jesus to do what he does. Shwager writes:
It would be most accurate to say that he [Jesus] introduced a significant shift concerning the law. He emphasized the inner sense of the law to such an extent that the external letter of the law. . . could fade into the background and practically lose its importance. Thus it became possible to take the step across the sacred boundary toward sinners. Neither did Jesus demand any spiritual practice of the law before he extended God’s mercy to sinners.
In his basileia [kingdom of God] message, salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places.
Did you get that? The external letter of the law, which has created insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, is diminished. In this context those distinctions melt away. Salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places. We don’t confess so that God will forgive. What Jesus embodies is that God may always already forgives, even before we have confessed. Again, the unclean are welcome!
Jesus’ interpretation of the law must above all be seen in connection with his turning to those without the law and with his proclamation of God, which distinguished him from the exclusive rigorism of the Qumran sects[of extremely rigid rule followers] and brought him as well into difficulties with the Pharisees. In the parables of God’s kingdom, in his dealings with the temple and the law, and in his relationship to sinners, Jesus gave expression to his heavenly Father as a God who turns in a new way toward sinners. Herein lay the deepest dimension of his message of the dawning kingdom of God, and it is from that point that his further proclamation and his life’s destiny should be interpreted.
Thus, the story of the Pharisees all fetootzed because of an indiscretion is less about the rejection of the law and more about the radical acceptance of God for all people because of Jesus.
Which brings us back to social media and the efforts that we make to present the best possible version. While it is what we like to do, and it certainly is fun to see what friends and family are doing, it should never take place to the denial of the other aspects of life, all of our lives. Indeed, the need to manage the perception of our life is not a part of life in God, for what Jesus reminds us is that God already accepts us as we are, where we are, even before we may know about the law or even desire to follow it. That is what we are invited to embrace and to hold onto as the true nature of our being. Not acceptance because we look a certain way, but acceptance because we were born this way. Not love because we can fulfill certain rules, but love because the rules have been fulfilled. Not connection because we are better than others, but connection because we see not only our common humanity in each other but God’s image imprinted upon all whom we meet.