Spiritual Reflection – Rituals
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders.) (Mark 7:1–3 NRSV)
The Gospels contain many instances of dialogue between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day (particularly the Pharisees), concerning differences of opinion between himself and them regarding the place of certain rituals in the Torah (the ‘Law’) and the emphasis that should be accorded to these rituals.
Moses received the ‘Law’ from God while leading the people of Israel through the wilderness following the ‘exodus’ from Egypt. The various accounts of this are recorded in the Book of Exodus, the Book of Leviticus, the Book of Numbers, and the Book of Deuteronomy. In the centuries that followed, it was the role of the religious leaders (such as the Pharisees) and priests to ensure that the people of Israel obeyed the ‘Law’. It was deemed necessary for the people of Israel to do so if they were to be in a “right relationship” with God.
Many of the 613 individual statutes and ordinances that made up the ‘Law’, involved rituals that were to be performed at specific times or on certain occasions. For example, before eating, a Jewish person was required, with the aid of a cup from which they poured water over each hand in turn, to wash their hands thoroughly, right up to the wrist of each hand. The opening verses of chapter 7 from the Gospel of Mark provide us with an instance where the Pharisees question Jesus on why his disciples eat with defiled hands – that is, without washing them in accordance with the tradition of their ancestors, who were supposedly following the instructions of Moses.
Jesus answers them by accusing them of hypocrisy when it comes to following the tradition of their ancestors. The specific example of hypocrisy that he mentions is related to the commandment of ‘honouring one’s father and mother’. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of avoiding this commandment by claiming that their possessions, which might have been used to provide for their parents, were reserved for “Corban”, which was a sacrifice or offering to God that took priority over anything else. Thus if someone declared their money or possessions as “Corban”, they were excused from their responsibility under the ‘Law’ to use such money or possessions to provide for their parents.
Jesus was therefore saying that while anyone who did such a thing was technically doing the right thing, and was observing the ‘Law’, they were obviously not doing what God would have expected them to do, which was to have compassion for their parents, and to take care of them in their old age. And there are many other examples that Jesus gives, such as the rituals relating to “unclean” food and the cleaning of vessels, where he challenged the continuing relevance of customs that had become attached to the practice of the ‘Law’.
Perhaps the most compelling metaphor that Jesus used to convey his message concerning the relevance of these ancient customs, was that of new wine and old wineskins. The new cannot fit into the old; both will be lost. The new age, ushered in by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, demanded new institutions and new ways of doing things, in order that God’s will would be carried out in the world.
Perhaps the same is true today of some of the rituals and traditions we follow? Those rituals and traditions may have been useful in the past in bringing us closer to God, but the question we need to ask ourselves from time to time is, are they still working for us? After a long period of time, many practices can become so routine that we don’t ever stop to consider why we are still following them. We may find that they no longer provide us with the inspiration or motivation for us to seek to be closer to God. We might need to ask ourselves whether it is time for us to look for alternative ways of doing things that will enable us to discern and respond to God’s call.