It’s the blessing and curse of the digital age that, if you want to make a change, there is an overabundance of “expertise” instantaneously available to you. Take, for example, the parents of my generation, who want to discipline our children differently than our parents did. Maybe we’ve seen how those ways fell short; perhaps we’ve even seen the repetition of dysfunctional patterns in each generation. So, searching for best practices, we Google our childrearing questions and receive a thousand conflicting disciplinary ideas. Overwhelmed and weary after too many lists of “10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know,” we default back to familiar disciplinary tactics. Our parents weren’t perfect, but we turned out okay, didn’t we?
Thus flows tradition, by which humans learn and pass on disciplines of all kinds, effective or not. I’m using the word “discipline” in its basic, neutral meaning, simply a mode of training intended to guide and shape the will and character of a person. At our best, with children we use discipline to train them in acceptable and responsible behavior, wanting them to not only survive but thrive in a complex world.
Likewise, in Christian spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, such as prayer or Bible study, are tools to shape disciples in God’s will and character. In the gospels, Jesus is always teaching and modeling practices which help us see and live into life in God’s kingdom. And that is where the debate springs up between the Pharisees and Jesus. Jesus has been saying and doing things that contradict the “tradition of the elders,” the disciplinary theory and practice the Pharisees are promoting for God’s people.
Practices of table fellowship are the specific issue: how, what, and with whom should faithful people eat? The Pharisees, drawing from Leviticus, had developed a number of disciplines to ensure ritual purity, a state of unblemished faithfulness to God. It meant keeping oneself separate from contaminating things and people which could render a person ritually unclean and barred from the Temple, the site of God’s holy presence on earth.
But some life situations made ritual purity difficult. For example at a market, you couldn’t be certain the food you purchased was cultivated correctly, or if proper tithes had been set aside. So you practiced cleansing disciplines to counteract any ritual impurity for which you couldn’t otherwise control.
The Pharisees, whose name literally means “separate ones,”[i] believed God’s people were meant to be set apart. So they promoted these practices as not just good for individuals, but as “fundamental to [their] ethnic and national identity”.[ii] In a time when Middle Eastern Jews were surrounded and infiltrated by the pagan Romans, their reinforcement of their purity code is typical. N.T. Wright suggests that for people experiencing the threat of invasion and cultural compromise, keeping strict purity codes was a symbolic way to say, “We are Jews! We are different! We don’t live like you do!”[iii]
So there is not just religious but political consternation when the Pharisees see Jesus’ disciples eating without performing the purification rituals. Beyond the actions of the moment, they are offended by Jesus’ larger pattern of eating with people excluded by the purity codes: sinners, tax collectors and Gentiles. So the Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
The Pharisees’ criticism is an opportunity for Jesus to address key issues of spiritual discipline. First is the issue of hypocrisy, which one commentator defines as “the disconnect between the moral values and standards we espouse and those we actually practice in our behavior…”[iv] In the Bible, the “heart” is understood as the seat of human motivation and will. With Isaiah’s words, Jesus attacks the Pharisees’ promotion of ritual purity, suggesting they are not solely motivated, as they claim, by a desire to honor God, but by the mixed motivations of a self-serving, human ideological agenda.
Everyone who seeks to live in ways pleasing to God faces the danger of hypocrisy, especially those who want teach others the discipline of such a life. How much damage has been done in faith communities whose leaders fall scandalously short of practicing what they preach! But the example I started with, of parents disciplining children, exposes the basic culpability of the majority. How many of us, in our words or actions, have not essentially told our children, “Do what I say and not what I do?”
Keith and I recently attended a workshop on Conscious Discipline, a theory and practice for offering loving guidance to children, recommended by Ruth Young, who uses it with children at Head Start. The founder of Conscious Discipline, Becky A. Bailey, has a book for parents called Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. After eighteen months studying Spiritual Formation and Discipleship at George Fox, I must say that Bailey’s book translates so much of what I’ve learned into clear, practical terms that I’m an enthusiastic “new convert” who just can’t help myself recommending it to you, regardless of whether you work with children.
Bailey’s purpose is to help parents move from disciplinary practices motivated by fear, which seek to control children, to practices motivated by love, which seek to guide growing human beings in learning connection and cooperation. But the most challenging aspect of her thought is that parents themselves must become consciously disciplined in the skills they wish to teach their children.
To highlight this point, Bailey recounts the story of a mother who walked three days to consult the Mahatma Gandhi about her son. “He eats only sugar—no other food. I have tried everything to get him to eat healthfully, yet he refuses. Please help me.” (I relate to her!). Gandhi told her to return in one week with her son.
Disappointed, the mother nevertheless walked home, waited a week, and then walked the long way back to Gandhi, as instructed. When she arrived, Gandhi simply looked at her child and told him, “Stop eating sugar.” “The mother, shocked by the brevity of his command, said, ‘I walked nine days and that is all you have to say? Could you not have told him this last week?’ Gandhi responded, ‘I could not tell the boy to stop doing something that I was still doing. It took me one week to stop eating sugar.’”[v] Bailey writes, “Gandhi couldn’t tell a child to stop doing something that he himself still did, and neither can you.”[vi]
In Christian terms, this story reminds us that purity of heart empowers purity of action. Not one of us doesn’t struggle to live with such integrity, in which our outer actions are a natural outflow of our inner dispositions. So often we launch into the attempt to change our own or others’ behavior without becoming aware of our own inner reality. If we keep this up, we become divided from ourselves, determined to escape a confused inner life by adhering rigorously to external formulas and checklists, trying to purify ourselves by fencing off the devastating vulnerability of a disintegrated identity.
Jesus says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: here is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile…For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…”
Do not mistake the means for the end, Jesus is saying. We can wash our hands, choose organic food, and exercise ourselves all we want. All of those are health-promoting practices, but they will not save us. Ultimately, every practice of discipline falls short. Even Conscious Discipline, which I am so excited about, will fall short, if it does not help address the deeper, root problem humans face in our desire to live a whole and holy life.
Our “Unvanquished” Vacation Bible School, which was held this past week, had today’s Romans passage as the centerpiece: there is nothing external to us, nothing that can happen to us, nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
But what might, and often does, hinder us from living out of God’s love is what N.T. Wright calls “the poisoned wells of human motivation.”[vii] Another author writes says it is the “malignancy” at our hearts “that chokes the life out of tradition, turns it into an enemy of God, contorts it into a way of excusing injustice, and blinds those afflicted by it to their own culpability for the evils that trouble the world…”[viii]
My friends, the enemy comes not from without but from within.
As much as I enjoy teaching spiritual formation practices, as much as I respect our Presbyterian polity, those disciplines, at their best, serve only to direct us toward and open us to our true hope, which is that God in Christ can show us the truth of our hearts. As we turn again toward God, we see ourselves, with humility and honesty, as sinners—people who miss the mark of true faithfulness—sinners who receive God’s saving purpose, presence, and power only by way of God’s gracious mercy. This awareness alone prepares us to enter the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.
At their best, spiritual disciplines also reveal for us that Christ’s kingdom is always different from what we expect. Christ’s kingdom is like not a world so controlled that there are no upsets or conflicts, but a world in which conflict becomes an opportunity to teach and to learn the ways of forgiveness and love.[ix] It is not a purity of separation, from which some messy people are excluded to make the world less complex for “clean” ones. It is about a purity of unification, in which a holy God comes to earth, embracing a fully human life, relating with compromised, corrupted people in acceptance, compassion, and vulnerability, in which we become pure as we are joined to God.
My friends, Jesus Christ invites us to follow him as disciples, receiving his discipline of forgiving love with hope and joy. As we follow him, let us entrust our broken hearts to his transforming touch, returning again and again to his love in which we are made whole. Amen.
[ii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, 218.
[iii] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 93.
[iv] Loye Bradley Ashton, “Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 22.
[v] Bailey, Becky A. Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The Seven Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation. New York: Harper, 2000, 70-71.
[vi] Bailey as above, 71.
[vii] Wright, 91-92.
[viii] Matt Skinner, quoting Joel Marcus in http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1381
[ix] Becky A. Bailey, 17; also Rachel Mann, http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/politics-unclean-hands-mark-7-1-8-14-15-21-23/