Jesus and James: “Vain Worship” and “True Religion”

By Dan Clendenin

A few years ago when my daughter was playing high school soccer, she had a team lunch at which a Mom gently reminded her daughter to remove the cheese from her Subway sandwich. “It’s still not kosher,” she laughed, “but at least it’s a little better.”

I admired Hannah’s care to follow Jewish dietary laws to “keep kosher” by eating only what is “fit” or “clean” — from the Hebrew word kasher. Following purity laws (halakha) is an important way for Jews to express their relationship to God.

In Mark’s gospel this week, ritual purity is the context for the mission and message of Jesus.

Dietary restrictions were only a small part of a comprehensive “holiness code” that regulated every aspect of personal and community life for Jews 3,500 years ago. By one count, there are 631 mizvot or “commandments” in the five books of Moses.

The purity laws of Leviticus 11–26, for example, describe clean and unclean foods, purity rituals after childbirth or a menstrual cycle, regulations for skin infections and contaminated clothing or furniture, prohibitions against contact with a human corpse or dead animal, instructions about nocturnal emissions, laws regarding bodily discharges, agricultural guidelines about planting seeds and mating animals, and decrees about lawful sexual relationships, keeping the sabbath, forsaking idols, and even tattoos.

Why so many rules? Some of these purity laws encoded common sense or moral ideals that we still follow today, like prohibitions against incest. Others regulated hygiene and sanitation. Still others symbolized Israel’s unique identity that differentiated its people from pagan nations.

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Christ and the Pharisees Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599–1641)

Ultimately, though, and at their best, the purity laws ritualized an exhortation from Yahweh: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” When Psalm 15 for this week asks, “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?” the right response is that only people who are “pure” may approach a holy God.

We don’t know how much ordinary first-century Jews maintained ritual purity, but the Pharisees about whom we read so much in the gospels certainly did. Throughout the gospels they criticized Jesus for his flagrant disregard for ritual purity.

Jesus the Jew touched a leper (Mark 1:41), his disciples didn’t fast (Mark 2:18f), he ignored sabbath laws (2:23f), he touched a woman with a discharge and handled a corpse (5:21–42), and healed two Gentiles (Mark 7:24f).

In the gospel this week, perhaps the most important of all the “purity” texts, Mark recounts a clash between Jesus and the Pharisees about food purity. The Pharisees complained that Jesus’s disciples ate with “unclean” hands.

Mark includes two parenthetical explanations to his Gentile readers,who otherwise might have been clueless: “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.”

Then, in an aside that we might find trivial but his Jewish readers would have found shocking, Mark writes that “Jesus thus declared all foods ‘clean.’” What?!

Notice the central accusation in this clash. The Pharisees considered Jesus and his followers as ritually unclean sinners who flaunted God’s clear laws. They were “dirty” and “impure.” In a sense they were right.

Given our propensity to justify ourselves and to scape-goat others, the purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually “clean” who considered themselves to be close to God, and the “unclean” who were shunned as impure sinners who were far from God.

Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated. In word and in deed Jesus ignored, disregarded and actively demolished these distinctions of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.

Marcus Borg argued that Jesus turned the purity system with its “sharp social boundaries” on its head. In its place he substituted a radically alternate social vision.

The new community that Jesus announced would be characterized by interior compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code, by egalitarian inclusivity rather than by hierarchical exclusivity, and by inward transformation rather than outward ritual.

In place of “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), said Borg, Jesus deliberately substituted the call to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36, my emphasis).

“No outcasts,” writes Garry Wills in What Jesus Meant, “were cast out far enough in Jesus’ world to make him shun them — not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love?”

Just as Jesus warns of “worshiping in vain,” James draws a distinction between religion that is either “worthless” or “faultless,” either “true” or “defiled.” The difference between the two has to do with self-deception.

“Don’t be deceived,” he writes. All the good gifts in my life “come from the Father above.” In a striking description, James says that “God gives generously to all without finding fault.” The myth of the self-made person is just that, a myth. It’s a self-deception.

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Christ and the Pharisees Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599–1641).

“Don’t deceive yourselves,” James repeats. “Don’t merely listen to the gospel, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” To listen without doing is like looking at your face in a mirror, walking away, and then forgetting what you look like.

And then a third time — I deceive myself if I consider myself religious and yet “do not keep a tight rein” on my tongue. James compares the power of speech to a bit in a horse’s mouth, a small rudder that steers a large ship, or a tiny spark that ignites a huge forest fire.

Much as Jesus contrasted outward obedience with inward compassion, James contrasts “worthless” religion that is self-deceptive with the “faultless” religion of caring for widows and orphans.

When I was in grad school I came across a prayer by Kierkegaard that I liked so much that my wife printed it in calligraphy. For many years it hung in my office.

Kierkegaard’s prayer warns me of self-deception (James), and of confusing the “rules made by men” with “the commands of God” (Jesus).

Herr! gieb Uns blöde Augen für Dinge, die nichts taugen und Augen voller Klarheit in alle Deine Wahreit. Lord! Give us weak eyes for things that do not matter and eyes full of clarity in all your truth.

May the Spirit of God give us more self-understanding and less self-consciousness, for a life of faith that is authentic and not in vain, more faultless and less worthless.

Image credits: (1) Netmuseum.org and (2) Netmuseum.org.

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