Today’s reading at the morning Eucharist was Mark 7.1-13.
I can’t think of an instance in the gospels when the Pharisees would have come away from a conversation with Jesus thinking, ‘That went well, I think we really convinced him this time.’ And they try so hard, so very hard, to get it right, and they always miss what’s right in front of them.
Today, this reading comes across not as a last Alleluia before the fast begins, but perhaps more as a comment on Lent itself and how we keep it. It reminds us that the whole point of the law when it was given was to give another way, alongside all the many other gifts and self-revelations of God through the centuries, for us to ‘learn to be God’s people once again.’
It invites us to think about how whatever Lenten discipline we’ve chosen to undertake is going to help us draw closer to God – and warns us against anything that might inadvertently become an end in itself and so drive a wedge between us and God.
It took the ancient Israelites 40 years – a whole lifetime – to learn to be God’s people, and they still kept getting it wrong, just as we do. The law that was given to them during this time at Sinai was supposed to help, but in every generation since, God’s people have done as the gospel’s Pharisees tend to do, and made the law into a thing in itself, rather than as a way of learning to be People of God. All that time in the wilderness, trying to work out how to do it right, and all along, through the visceral and dramatic pillars of fire and cloud, and through the daily gift of manna from heaven, God was right there with them, inviting his beloved children to trust him, to draw up a chair at his table, sit and eat.
The poor Pharisees in the gospel reading are in a similar boat. They try so hard to get it right, and all the time they’re missing what’s right in front of them: Jesus’ friends, with their unwashed hands, are drawing up a chair every day and sitting down to eat with God. I pray that when the last judgement comes, all who tried so hard, yet missed the point, will be confronted with the raw love and generosity and hospitality of God that says, ‘Sit, and eat’, and finally reply, ‘Thank you, I’d love to’.
This Lent, I pray that whatever we ‘do’ may be a way to draw closer, to become God’s people once again, whether that process takes 40 days or 40 years. I pray that it will be a time when we can hear God’s invitation and respond by drawing our chair closer – in worship, work, leisure, and rest – and enjoy table fellowship with our Lord.