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Keeping The Life in the Law

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23


While strolling through the grocery store during my weekly trip to stock up on lunches and snacks, I noticed a warning label on one of the products that I was about to purchase. The thought struck me that warning labels have become the "ceremonial" laws of our consumer conscious society. You might say that those labels identify what is "clean" and "unclean." For those on a restrictive diet, the labels can serve as a valuable source of information. For example, Sainsbury Mineral Water has a label stating that their product is "Suitable for vegetarians." I am sure that vegetarians are relieved to know that there is one form of water that will not disrupt their digestive system. Also, can you imagine how many highway fatalities and construction injuries have been prevented because Miller Lite Beer has the warning "Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and my cause health problems?" And for those with allergies to nuts, I am sure that you have taken heed of the warning on the jar of Sainsbury Peanuts, that their product just may contain nuts.

Not only do warning labels serve to identify what products we should or should not eat but they also help us know how to consume the food properly. A friend told me that he did not know what he would have done, during his New Millennium Celebration party this past New Year's Eve, if Moet had not told him to remove the label from their White Star Champagne before he placed he placed the bottle of champagne in the microwave. I still have not learned why he was placing champagne in the microwave. For me, the most helpful label was the one on the bag of peanuts that was given to me on my first airplane flight. And I do not know how long it would have taken me to figure out what to do with that bag of peanuts if it had not come with the instructions: Open packet, eat nuts.

Without a doubt, warning labels have become quite ridiculous. They are created to shield companies from legal entanglements, rather than provide the consumer with helpful and pertinent information. By the time, Jesus began his ministry along the shores of Galilee, the ceremonial laws of Judaism had also become quite ridiculous, and the radical zeal of the Pharisees only compounded the matter. The Pharisee's commitment to ritual purity made them extremely pious but personally obnoxious. Their spirituality had become a burden of enslavement rather than a discipline of joy. Their unnecessary laws provided a facade of external piety, rather than the empowerment to live out the teachings of the Torah, the Law. Someone once said, "The meanest man I ever saw, always lived inside the Law"1 would have applied to those men. Thus, the stage was set for a collision between those religious right-wingers and Jesus. This morning's Scripture passage records what happen when the Pharisees challenged him. Unfortunately, the issues related to their confrontation are often confused and misapplied causing believers to think that they can produce the fruit of the Christian life solely through an experience of faith. This morning I would to present a better understanding of the importance of law and ritual in the spiritual life. I hope that we can discover together that only by keeping the life in the law are we able to grow in our faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ.


Our first task is to gain a proper understanding of the role and function of law and ritual. The Jewish nation was guided by Torah, the Law, as contained in the first five books of the Bible-Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. This is what comes to mind, whenever a Jew ponders the Law of God. These first five books contain the great moral principals that were to shape the life of each person. They also outlined the ceremonial practices that guided corporate worship. Throughout the centuries, the scribes studied Torah, with a passionate devotion out of their love and duty for God. They discussed the teachings of Torah to discover ways of applying its message in every area of their life. During their discussion, they came to a consensus on how to apply its general principles in practical ways. For example, foundational to the Law was the sinfulness of humanity since the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. Through that one act of disobedience, the essential nature of humanity was tarnished by sin. The man and the woman could no longer live in the presence of God without being destroyed by God's holiness. To dramatize the state of the relationship, the book of Exodus describes the rites of ceremonial cleansing required by the priests before they could conduct their religious duties. 
17 The LORD spoke to Moses: 18 You shall make a bronze basin with a bronze stand for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it; 19 with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the LORD, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. 21 They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die: it shall be a perpetual ordinance for them, for him and for his descendants throughout their generations.

While this ceremonial cleansing only applied to the priests, the community adopted the custom. These ceremonial codes were passed on and expanded through oral tradition. In the 2nd Century they were summarized, recorded became the Misnah. At the time of Jesus they were still in oral form but had become quite elaborate. The devout Jew was literally washing all the time. To begin a meal they would pour a little water over their hands, raise their hands in the air so that the water would stream down their wrists and then they would rub their hands together. Next, they would lower their hands and rinse them allowing the water to run off their fingertips. If they had just returned from the marketplace where they could have been defiled, the measures were more extreme. Some scholars suggest that the language means that they literally took a bath. After supper, the cleansing rituals were so complex that the list covers over thirty-five pages.

These laws were not just on the books, they were enforced. A rabbi who admitted to once omitting washing his hands before eating bread was excommunicated. Another rabbi who was imprisoned by the Romans nearly died because he used his ration of drinking water to ritually wash up. By the time Jesus began his ministry, the concept of piety "had been trivialized to system of external washings."2

The Church of the 21st Century has overreacted to the danger of trivializing the faith through Pharisaic legalism. Like a gigantic pendulum, we have swung to the other extreme. Dallas Willard writes, "the church at present has lost any realistic and specific sense of what it means for the individual believer to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ." (II Pt 3:18)3 Churches have striped their sanctuary of meaningful religious symbols creating a theater effect. Many of the unison readings in worship have been replaced with songs and instrumental music. Few believers engage in the regular practice of the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, solitude, meditation, and fasting. The family altar has disappeared from homes along with family devotions. Tithing has been abandoned as an excessive legalistic doctrine. 

Just before I moved here, Carol and I were taken on an airplane ride over a portion of the Cascades. We circled Glacier Peak, and enjoyed a breathtaking view of its glaciers and the NW forests. Glacier is one of several peaks, along with Mt St Helens, Rainer, Baker and Adams that are still active volcanoes. On the return trip, the pilot dialed into a radio frequency from Panghorn Airport. The radio beam allowed him to set his controls to head directly to the proper runway. A steady signal told him that he was heading in the right direction. When he veered off course, to show us a certain valley the radio controls set him a warning. The regular practice of the spiritual disciplines, the rituals of worship, and the traditions of our religion serve as a guide path for our faith. In and of themselves they are not trivial expressions. Simply because the Pharisees were guilty of excessive legalism does not mean that we should discard our rich heritage rely sole on spontaneity for our spiritual growth.   The popular cartoon strip "Peanuts" offers a warning of the consequences of a spiritual life that fails to maintain traditions and disciplines.

Charlie Brown is screaming at Lucy because she has made a boneheaded play in their baseball game. "You threw to the wrong base again!" he bawls. "There were runners on first and second, and you threw the ball to first! In a situation like that, you always throw to third or home!" Lucy considers his advice fro a moment and then boldly replies, "You're destroying my creativity [spontaneity]."4 While spontaneity may allow for a fresh approach, a team will not win the game unless each player follows the rules and disciplines of the sport.

The law may become trivialized but...

Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord (Ps 119:1)


We also misapply the issues related to the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees by judging the Pharisees too harshly. They are usually presented as the bad guys who enjoyed making everyone else's life miserable by thinking up a complicated set of rules and regulations. While their religious rules did become very restrictive and burdensome, they created them with good intention. They originally created their rules to enhance their spiritual life. The act of washing reminded the pious priest of his own inner need for purification. Unfortunately, as time passed the purpose behind the ritual was forgotten which is easy to do.

Mary's mother had told her to never put a hat on the table or a coat on the bed. So, she went through life "religiously" avoiding both. Whenever she inadvertently forgot, her mother went into a triage. Mary never understood why her mother would become so upset, simply because a garment of clothing was on the kitchen table or bed. One day she visited her grandmother who was in her eighties and asked, "Grandmother, why do you never put a hat on a table or a coat on the bed." The old woman told her granddaughter that when she was a little girl, there had been some neighbor children who were infested with lice and her mother had warned her that it was important to never put the neighbor children's hats on the table or their coats on the bed. The reason was gone and nearly forgotten but the law was still in effect.5

Rituals are not in themselves meaningless. The creeds and confessions of the historical church are powerful statements of faith that must never be forgotten. The Nicene Creed, which the Church recites during the Eucharist, was fashioned during a period of confusion and conflict over the doctrine of the Trinity. The theological issues are very current today. The heresies of the 4th Century have resurfaced. People are once again confused about who is Jesus Christ and what is his relationship to the Father and the Spirit. Through the unison reading of the Creed, we remind ourselves of what we believe. Rather than throw out the Creed as meaningless, we should visit our Grandmothers and ask them why we recite those words again and again.

The purpose of the Law may be forgotten but

Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart(Ps 119:2 )


While living in Wenatchee WA, which calls itself the "Apple Capital of the World," I was surround by orchards. The work of the orchardists became symbolic of the life of faith. The growers conducted their work with a ritualistic rhythm. After the last fruit was picked, the growers began to prepare for the next crop by performing the ritual of liming. They would then allow winter to set in and the trees to go dominate before beginning the ritual of pruning. After all the suckers were off the tree, the growers would engage in the ritual of spraying. They timed their spraying to the life cycle of the dreaded coddling moth. During the summer, they would also conduct the daily ritual of watering which required them to rotate sprinklers throughout their orchard. Then they would wait for the apples to grow and mature. With the cool evening nights of September, the apples would turn a brilliant red and then the growers would conduct the ritual of testing. The apple must be tested for its crunch, sweetness, and a few other factors before it can be harvested. Finally, the grower would determine that the apple is ready for harvest and they would begin the ritual of picking.

Whereas success in the apple business is measured by the quantity, size, and weight of the fruit, every grower knows that his success is directly dependant on his effectiveness in performing the rituals throughout the year. Poorly pruned trees may produce too many apples that are too small to sell. A mistimed spray may allow the coddling moth to destroy a substantial portion of the crop. The same holds for the Christian life.

Whereas success in the Christian life is not measured by how many rituals you perform but by the visible display of fruit in your life, the believer will not produce the fruit without the regular exercise of the spiritual disciplines. God does not care how many books of the Bible you read but by how effective you are in controlling your sexual fantasies. The mature Christian is not determined by the amount of time a person spends praying but by the absence of greed, malice, and slander. However, even the apostle Paul understood the importance of spiritual discipline. Paul often compared the Christian life to athletics. Every high school football player knows that just because he signs a letter of intent to a Big Ten school, does not mean that he will be in the starting line up. He must apply himself to a rigorous training schedule. He must prepare his body and his mind by running repetitive drills again and again. Only through intensive self-discipline will he earn a starting position.


When Jesus confronted the Pharisees he was not advocating for a laid back, meandering version of the spiritual life. He was not substituting ecstatic experiences for ritual and tradition. He was not placing a ban on the rigorous use of the spiritual disciplines by believers in their pursuit of holiness. He was not giving believers the option of pursuing or not pursuing spiritual growth. He was confronting a mindset that had trivialized the activity of the faith into mindless activity. He was challenging a religion that had forgotten the importance and true meaning of the Law. He was uprooting a system that was not producing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In his book on the spiritual disciplines, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster warns that "there will always be the danger of turning [the disciplines] into laws."6 This does not excuse our negligence. Nor will we win any gold medals simple because we avoid the legalism of the Pharisees. Jesus says,

You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:16,17)
We will only bear fruit that will last by keeping the life in the law.

1 Glendon Harris, Pulpit Resource, "Keeping the Life in the Law," Vol. 10, No. 3, 32.
2 R. Kent Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, (Westchester IL: Crossway Books, 1989), 164.
3 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of Discipline, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publisher, 1991), 16.
4 Glendon Harris, Pulpit Resource, "Learner's Permit," Vol. 20, No. 3, 34.
5 Glendon Harris, "Keeping the Life in the Law", quoting from Thomas Harris, I'm Okay, You're Okay.
6 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988), 10.

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