By Debie Thomas
I grew up in a church where jewelry was not allowed. No one in the congregation wore engagement rings or wedding bands. Women and girls weren’t permitted to wear rings, necklaces, bracelets, or earrings. Even play jewelry — the pink plastic rings I’d pull out of cereal boxes or the bead bracelets I’d make at my friends’ birthday parties — was banned. Anyone who showed up on a Sunday morning sporting an “ornament” — even first-time visitors ignorant of the prohibition — could be denied Communion.
Growing up, I had no idea why God hated jewelry. I was told that my bare ears and unadorned wrists were visible signs of my wholehearted devotion to Jesus. I was told that God’s children don’t need outward adornment, because we’re “clothed in righteousness.” I was told that storing up treasure in heaven is more important than wearing silver, gold, or diamonds on earth. I was told that avoiding material distractions and pleasures would help me grow as a Christian.
As a kid, I wasn’t brave enough to argue with my elders. But in secret, I knew they were wrong about the relationship between my jewelry-less-ness and my devotion. Not being allowed to wear pretty bangles on my wrists, or get my ears pierced on my twelfth birthday like all my non-Christian friends, did not make me love God more. It made me resent him. Why did Jesus want me to feel excluded, different, and weird at school? Why did he care more about my outsides than he did about my insides? What was the point of parading my un-ornamented limbs in church every Sunday morning, if my hidden heart was seething the whole time?
I only learned the whole story many years later. Apparently, when my great-grandparents had been newlyweds, a large-scale charismatic revival had swept through South India, winning many converts from the ornate mainline churches of my forebears. Many young adults had embraced the simple faith the revivalists encouraged in those days, and chosen — often at great personal and social cost — to change their lifestyles for the sake of the Gospel. One of the lifestyle changes centered around jewelry. At a time when gold meant social capital in India, when even Christian families judged each other’s worth by the weight of the jewelry their women wore, when girls whose fathers couldn’t produce enough jewelry for their dowries had to remain unmarried, the decision to forsake “ornaments” in the name of Jesus was a radical one. It spoke powerfully to the equalizing power of the Gospel. No longer would my great-grandparents and their peers participate in the snobbery of their time and place; instead, they would live counter-culturally and practice what Jesus preached — even if it meant losing their social standing and family honor. No matter what the cost, they would embrace humility, simplicity, and equality as testimonies of Christ’s non-discriminating love.
That was the history behind my church’s “no ornament” rule. It was a noble history, for sure, but the problem was, its nobility had frozen in time. Our context had changed, and so had the cultural and social meanings behind wearing a bracelet, a necklace, or a pair of earrings to church. Clearly, what had begun as an earnest and costly attempt to bring the sacred into everyday life had hardened over the generations into a Spirit-less legalism. What started out as a gesture of radical welcome and openness had become a tool of exclusion and self-righteousness. What grew from a holy desire to live as Christ lived had degenerated into an empty human tradition.
In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus confronts a group of Pharisees who accuse his disciples of disregarding “the tradition of the elders.” Specifically, the Pharisees ask why some of Jesus’s followers eat their meals with “defiled hands” — that is, why they eat without performing the ritual hand washing expected of observant Jewish people before meals.
To our modern ears, the accusation might sound ridiculous and trivial. But in fact, the Pharisees are asking a legitimate question, a question that still has relevance for us today. Consider the context: the first century Jews among whom Jesus ministered were an oppressed minority living in an occupied land. How were they supposed to keep their faith pure and vibrant against the backdrop of colonization? In the midst of profound religious and cultural diversity, how were they to maintain their identity? Their integrity? Their heritage?
The Pharisees’ solution to the problem in this week’s lectionary is to contain and codify the sacred. How can God’s people show forth their faith among pagans? They can practice the ancient rituals of their elders down to the last letter. They can wash their hands before every meal; refuse table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other morally compromised sinners; and set themselves apart in everyday life as God’s righteous and holy people.
I can’t speak to their intentions, but Jesus can, and he does. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
Ouch. But aren’t the Pharisees just trying, like the people at my childhood church, to keep the sacred sacred? Aren’t they making a noble attempt to serve God in a public, visible way?
It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t condemn ritual hand washing in his response to the Pharisees. He doesn’t argue that all religious traditions are evil. What he indicts is the legalism, self-righteousness, and exclusivism that keeps the Pharisees from freely loving God and loving their neighbors in ways that are relevant to their time and place. What he challenges is their unwillingness to evolve, to mature, and to change for the sake of God’s kingdom. What he grieves is the Pharisees’ compulsive need to police the boundaries — to decide who is “in” and who is “out,” based on their own narrow definitions of purity and piety.
Again, it’s easy for us “moderns” to look down on the moral rigidity of the Pharisees, but honestly, are we really so different? Don’t we sometimes behave as if we’re finished products, with nothing new to discover about the Holy Spirit’s movements in the world? Don’t we cling to spiritual traditions and practices that long ago ceased to be life-giving, simply because we can’t bear to change “the way we’ve always done things?” Don’t we set up religious litmus tests for each other, and decide who’s in and who’s out based on conditions that have nothing to do with Jesus’s open-hearted love and hospitality? Don’t we fixate on the forms of piety we can put on display for others to applaud, instead of cultivating the secret and hidden life of God deep within our souls?
It doesn’t matter what specific forms our legalism takes. In some churches, it centers around jewelry and clothing. In others, it comes down to deifying one worship style over another. In still others, it means policing the political affiliations and allegiances of parishioners. In some faith communities, the lines in the sand have to do with women clergy, or gay marriage, or racial justice, or economic equality. The guises vary, but in the end, legalism in any guise deadens us towards God and towards our neighbors. It freezes us in time, making us irrelevant to the generations that come after us. It makes us stingy and small-minded, cowardly and anxious. It strips away our joy and robs us of peace. It causes us, in Jesus’s chilling words, to “honor God with our lips” but to “worship him in vain.”
So what can we do? How can we honor God with our whole selves? How can we discern whether a tradition is life-giving or not? Jesus gives his listeners this advice: notice what comes out of you. Notice what fruit your adherence to tradition bears. Does your version of holiness lead to hospitality? To inclusion? To freedom? Does it cause your heart to open wide with compassion? Does it lead other people to feel loved and welcomed at God’s table? Does it make you brave? Does it ready your mind and body for a God who is always doing something fresh and new? Does it facilitate another step forward in your spiritual evolution?
Like everything else Jesus offers us, his confrontation with the Pharisees is an invitation. It’s an invitation to consider what is really sacred and inviolable in our spiritual lives. It’s an invitation to go deeper — past lip service, past tradition, past piety. It’s an invitation to practice what this week’s epistle calls “pure religion.” A religion of love for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the outcast. A religion of faith in a surprising, innovating, and ever-creating God. It’s not a “safe” religion. Or an easy one. But it’s a religion of the whole heart, and it’s far more precious than gold.
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