Religion has been part of the human experience since our beginnings. Religious yearning is woven deeply into the human conscience. When archeologists and anthropologists research human origins and societies, religion plays a vital role in describing our most ancient and primitive behaviors. We seek, we yearn, we hope for the sacred: sensing the need for the good, the true, the beautiful, and the compassionate as we wonder about our place in the universe and the destiny of the world around us.
From ancient times, this religious impulse has had both an exterior and interior expression. Religion involves outward actions and inner reflection. And these readings today, all from different communities of faith in different centuries, hinge on this particular distinction. They all speak to the exterior and interior expressions of human longing.
Our oldest human impulse has been toward the exterior expression of religion: its practice, ritual, regulations, calendars, traditions, prohibitions, and rules. In human experience, rituals and regulations became important to promote the fertility of the fields, the stability of the community, and the victory of the tribe. Perhaps the oldest rituals and religious practices centered on prayers and sacrifices for rain and favorable weather. But soon, it became apparent that the rituals, regulations, and rules of religion also could support the wellbeing of society. It is best if we do not steal each other’s belongings nor do violence whenever we feel like it. We will be healthier if we eat certain foods and abstain from others.
As society became hierarchical, religious ritual and regulation were used to support those in power. Ancient religion also placed upon rulers the responsibility to care and provide for those less fortunate and the vulnerable.
Our oldest human calendars were religious in nature. Calendars marked religious festivals, days of fasting and feasting, the circuit of the sun and stars, as the seasons passed. Regulations regarding everything from sanitation to temple sacrifice, from the treatment of enemies to the best food to eat, from treating disease to marriage and family matters, from the coronation of a king to the treatment of the poor emerged in almost all societies and traditions, including the Hebrew and Christian traditions in these readings.
The first reading today is the prologue of a long list of external rituals, regulations, and ethical responsibilities for the people of Israel. This section of the book of Deuteronomy, with its massive set of statutes, laws, and ordinances is one of the best summaries of the external dimension of religion in the ancient world. And as the reading suggests, the practice of these rituals and rules will bring the blessings of God, the stability of the nation, and the well being of all.
Now in a Lutheran rush to condemn the external approach to religion, we may underestimate the importance of ritual, religious rule and regulations, and their role in our lives. Think about the importance of our Christmas rituals, our holidays with families and friends, and the traditions which mark our yearly calendars, daily and weekly lives. Think about how important law and regulation is for society. Note that Deuteronomy says that there is a place for regulation, religious and government regulation: not too much – don’t add to it: but don’t try to take it away or subtract from it either. And look at the importance James places on the ritual act of giving alms to those in need. Our outward expression of compassion, generosity, and regard for the needs of others is very important. Our faith has an important external side.
But since at least the fifth century, BCE, and probably before, religion has had not only an external side, devoted to rule, regulation and ritual pattern. As the human spirit finds its deeper expressions, it discovers the sacred to live not only in the world around us, but also in our own hearts, selves, and souls. There is an inner spiritual yearning, an interior side to the life of faith. It is about what we do, but it is also about how we feel, what we sense, the birth of joy and hope, often in the face of the despair that so easily rises in life’s overwhelming difficulties.
Isaiah, Eziekiel, Jeremiah and Jesus all speak to this interior dimension of religion. And here is the thing: when ritual becomes empty, and rules become the means of oppression, the interior side of the faith rises to the surface to call that into question.
Occasionally in our history, we say things like we are made right, that all is made right, not by the law, but by the gospel, not by compliance to ordinances but by faith. And if the interior faith does not challenge the exterior rituals and patterns, then religion becomes empty. We become controlled by those in power, or we succumb to superstitious repetition of ritual.
This is the point of the passage in Mark seven. The followers of Jesus are called to live a life not grounded in regulation but in liberty. The followers of Jesus should wash their hands. But if they do not, that is all right, too. What matters is faith in God, finding one’s way back to God. It is what is inside of us that matters in Mark.
But the exterior and the interior do not always conflict. Perhaps that sacred space where they come together is called prayer. When we pray, we often follow forms and patterns. We use the same words, often over and over. We pray at the same times of the day and the same days of the week.
And yet in prayer, we discover that our hearts are engaged in something more than the ritual. We begin talking with God, even listening in silence, hearing ourselves and the Holy One, as we sort out what needs to happen both in our hearts and in the world. The ritual of prayer opens the door to the deepest matters of the heart. And we worship God when in prayer we discover how important it is to care again for the widow and orphan.
From ancient times, lives of faith have had both an exterior and interior expression. Religion involves outward actions and inner reflection. So today we are called in our own time through our tradition and ritual to do the good and to reflect on God’s future.