The 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St March Church in Norman, OK
March 2, 2003
Hosea 2:17-22 + 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 + Mark 2: 18-22
Pharisees get a bad rap in the Gospels. Consequently, we are not inclined to listen to what they have to say much less why they say it. Gospel writers use them as a tool to reinforce the sayings of Jesus, and that works well, but sometimes what Jesus has to say does not overturn or reverse what the Pharisees say, but simply reinforces it from another direction. I think today’s encounter with the Pharisees could be heard in that way with a little more attention to the motives of these Pharisees.
Far from being self-righteous moralists saving their souls by scrupulous personal behavior,
Pharisees are trying to create a common culture that would support fellow Jews in living their religion in the hostile environment of pagan Roman culture. They understood that the identity and the survival of any minority is the firm cohesion of members and preserving their clear distinction from others. Their whole focus was to confirm, establish, and maintain the identity of Israel. They believed that doing so rested upon the faithful and strict observance of Jewish law especially the laws that distinguished them from the Romans. They believed that the Jewish people were God’s people that they lived in Covenant with God and were therefore different from if not better than the Romans, and to keep their privileged status, they had to keep all the rules of the covenant. Pharisees believed that ones identity as a member of God’s chosen people was best found in obedience to God’s law. Nothing wrong with that thinking !
We are about to enter into the season of Lent. Forty days of identity search. It begins with an outward sign that you can wash off, and probably will within hours of its being imposed: a cross of ashes on your forehead. Everyone who sees that cross will know your identity and know where you’ve already been that day. But once it is cleaned away, who will know and what will they know? That is the question posed by this Gospel, an appropriate question to raise three days before Lent begins.
In years past, people knew our identity by what we ate on Friday by how we began a meal in public with the sign of the cross, as much as by where we went to church. These days, it is probably worth asking the question: How would anyone know we were disciples of Jesus rather than disciples of Alan Greenspan? How would they know that we live by Gospel values rather than peer pressure? How would they know that we believe that we have been made by God from the dust of the earth and will return to that dust one day?
The Forty Days that begin this Wednesday give us time to consider those questions and others like them that concern our identity as children of God and Disciples of Christ Jesus. Sacrifice, fasting, and prayer are the time-honored ways of sorting out and confirming our identity. Until we know who we are, no one else will either. Those ancient and well-proven ways provide for us our identity and give us the courage to make more public witness to the truth of that identity by the choices we make, the causes we claim, and the style of our life in relationship to this world and its inhabitants.
The Challenge of the Pharisees speaks to us today, about how we are to preserve our identity in a world that is hostile or indifferent to the values of our faith and the Gospel of Christ Jesus. What we shall do, and how we shall observe these forty days are matters that shape that identity and remind us who we are. These sacraments, customs, prayers, fasting, and almsgiving are for us what the Law was for the Pharisees. The observance of these customs are what keep us together and faithful to the one who has lived among us and remains among us in the sacramental life of the church. A little patch here, a little fix now and then is not going to keep us faithful to the Gospel we have been given and the life we are promised. What is required says Jesus, is that we abandon whole ways of thinking, adopt new ways of living, and embrace a life that will never leave in doubt who we are and where we are going.