Proper 17 (B): What About the Rules?
By: Dr. Emily Kahm
My spouse and I have a niece who is bright, glib, cheerful, and curious. From an early age, she’s one of those kids you want to listen to because everything that comes out of her mouth is unexpected and often hilarious. Yet, like so many extremely bright children, she has a particular penchant for seeking out precisely what she is not supposed to do. We talk about her as being the textbook example of obeying the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. Not supposed to go past this point on the driveway? Well, she’s going to play exactly on that border. Need to sit down for meals? She can figure out the most complex and uncomfortable looking squat that is hard to classify as either “sitting” or “standing.” I watch her parents constantly have to decide whether she’s pushing the boundary too far, or whether her precise but hardly innocent obedience to their instructions is, technically, within the rules. Suffice to say, she’s awesome.
But what is cute in an exasperating child isn’t so attractive in full-grown adults, and I see Jesus tackling that impulse as he verbally spars with the Pharisees in this passage. They look to a clear law and can’t see any reason to flout it; why would Jesus’ followers be so careless about their ritual washing? It’s tradition; it’s presumably not that hard to do. In the disregard for this one law, I imagine, they see more than just eating with unwashed hands; they fear (or maybe hope to find) that this is evidence that Jesus and his followers aren’t as good of Jews as others think they are. Maybe this relatively innocuous choice reveals them as disdainful of tradition, or ignorant of it; maybe this choice is all the confirmation they need to be able to dismiss this band of misfits as nothing more than a group of troublemakers who don’t really care about their religion.
I wish it were harder to think of modern equivalents, but I know all too well how this plays out in my Catholic tradition. You don’t go to Mass every Sunday? Well, you must not have any real idea of what Catholicism means. You don’t go to the sacrament of Reconciliation twice a year like the bishops recommend? Then how can you expect anyone to take you seriously when you claim to love the Church? You’ve decided to use a method of birth control that the Church condemns? You’re not a real Catholic.
I’m endlessly frustrated when my faith tradition is regarded (by insiders or outsiders) as somehow nothing more than a collection of rules to follow. It’s something I hear often from my undergraduate students, especially those who weren’t raised in any religious tradition. Christianity, from their perspective, is a set of strict beliefs that one must wholly accept and flawlessly adhere to, and anyone who marches out of time is sent packing. It worries me that that is what they’ve seen modeled. The letter of the law, in this interpretation, has no room for humanity, for context, for imperfection, or for conscientious dissent – it is synonymous with the whole religion. To be Christian is to follow orders.
This is why I am so heartened by the way Jesus teaches following this tiff, calling attention to a person’s motivations and intentions as far more important than the rules they follow. He refuses to argue about the specific rule and instead pushes his learners to think beyond compliance into the much harder space of morality. What does it mean to be greedy, or deceitful, or lewd? That’s tougher to answer than the question of whether one washed one’s hands properly before a meal. Sometimes it’s easier to “round down” and to obey a rule rather than to try and figure out why that rule exists in the first place, what it’s supposed to encourage and discourage within a person’s heart. My niece will, at least eventually, understand that the boundaries her parents impose are usually about safety (stay on the sidewalk!) or compassion (you can’t hit your sister and take her toy) – if she somehow grew up without realizing this, and without trying out the values for herself (my friend is upset; is it more compassionate to let her vent, or to help her come up with a solution?), we probably would say something went wrong in her learning. In the same way, rules make great litmus tests; moral discernment, by contrast, is messy, awkward, and fraught with mistakes. You can be a great rule-follower by, well, obeying the rules; it’s darn near impossible to be a moral person without screwing up a lot because so much of our moral development happens by observing and acknowledging our errors.
Personally, I think that any work we can do as religious professionals or ministers to de-emphasize “rules” and talk in more expansive ways about moral decision-making is worthwhile, and not because the behavioral guidance passed down in our tradition is worthless. Far from it; to comprehend the “rules” is to understand more about virtue and vice and how earlier Christians have wrestled with the same questions. But we do ourselves a disservice when we forget to dig in, when we let our tradition be reduced to a series of boxes to tick. The goal for my niece is that she’ll come to understand what the rules are about (safety, boundaries, love, compassion); same deal for us. Jesus seemed to think so, anyway.
Dr. Emily Kahm is a Teaching Fellow in Religion at Augustana College in Illinois, where she teaches courses on contemporary Christianity and Catholicism. She resides with her spouse, Chris, in Iowa, along with their dog, Bosco, and rabbits, Exodus and Hildegard.