Text: Mark 7:1-23
It was my plan this morning to talk with you about loophole religion. I figured it was a topic all of us could relate to—from the youngest to the oldest—for no matter what age, none of us like to be told no. We have become used to getting what we want in life, and we are especially cranky when things don’t work out in our favor. So it’s only human to look for the loophole when things don’t go our way.
Children are great loophole finders. Take for example the question that every parent has been asked by his or her child: “Is it ever okay to lie?” Answer as you will, but just know that is a loophole question waiting to happen. But it’s not just children who are good loophole finders, all of us are. Researchers have even coined the term “the loophole generation” when it comes to the current generation and online education.
Adults, however, might actually be the masters of finding the loophole in just about any situation. Case in point, the story of the man who flies free thanks to pudding. David Phillips is a University of California civil engineer. In 1999, he noticed that on the box of one of his Healthy Choice frozen dinners was a promotion they were doing with an airline. Anyone who sent in ten barcodes from the frozen dinners would get 1,000 frequent flyer miles in return. Get enough of those miles and the airline lets you fly for free.
Being a huge math geek, David did some calculations and realized that 1,000 miles had way more value than some of the cheaper products in the Healthy Choice line—namely, ten servings of Healthy Choice pudding. So David literally bought every single cup of pudding he could find. He purchased 12,150 cups of pudding in all. Healthy Choice, clearly not anticipating that much interest in their product, attempted to resist this clever consumer, but all the same ended up forking over the 1.25 million miles to Phillips. Not only that, Phillips also got the Salvation Army to peel off most of the barcodes for him, in exchange for donating the pudding which earned him an $800 tax deduction on top of everything. And so, for around $2,000, David Phillips and his family have been flying free for years.
That, I know, is an extreme example. And I could have just as easily talked about the loopholes I constantly searched for when I was doing Weight Watchers a number of years ago trying cleverly to manipulate the number of points I had for each meal. My point is that whether you are talking about how pudding can give you a lifetime of free flights or trying to beat the point system at Weight Watchers, loophole searching and finding is emblematic of our culture today. From politics, to the law, to healthcare, to voting rights, to immigration rights, to homework, to family negotiations around the dinner table, and especially when it comes to religion it seems we are all looking for the loopholes. And in this regard, it seems that we carry on the tradition of our spiritual ancestors.
While at first glance our narrative from the gospel of Mark appears to be about the politics of hand washing, it is really about finding the loopholes in our religious practice. As the story opens, it seems that the Pharisees were concerned that some of the disciples were eating without washing their hands—a tradition that at least the Pharisees thought was important. And so they asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with unclean hands?” At this point in the story, Jesus goes into one of his “Really, is that what you want to talk about?” modes. Actually, he begins with strong words, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites…” Maybe a little harsh for a simple question about hand washing. But as I said, this passage isn’t about hand washing. It is about the people trying to find a loophole around truly following God and God’s commandments. Jesus says to them, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
It’s hard to read this passage and not think of the movie Fiddler on the Roof. Tradition!! Remember the prologue to the song? It begins…
Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything… how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition…
To the Pharisees question, though, Jesus asks a question: What will it be, God or your human tradition?
Then he gives them an example that may seem a little odd and hard to understand at first reading. He tells them, “Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother…but you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban (that is, an offering to God)—then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother.”
Now, it would appear from this teaching that some of the people were neglecting their responsibilities in caring for their parents by suggesting that they were giving their money to God. Here Jesus gives a specific example of a contradiction between the Pharisaic tradition and the Law. According to tradition, once a person’s property is vowed as a gift/offering to the temple, that property cannot be released to support one’s parents. Jesus, thus, points out that this practice contradicts the command to honor your father and mother. And so it was, that Jesus was calling out their “loophole religion.”
Loophole religion at its worst, as one lectionary participant put it, is about people setting themselves up as gatekeepers. Her assessment rang true. At minimum I would say, loophole religion, is about using tradition to keep from deepening our commitments to following Jesus’ way. Our own Jim Jarrard said it best in our lectionary discussion. He said, “Doing things the way we’ve always done them got us where we are and will keep us where we are.” Tradition for traditions sake will never get us where we need to go.
What seems clear to me is that Jesus was constantly trying to get his followers to see that they couldn’t stand behind rules and laws and traditions and loopholes and call that doing justice and loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Jesus said it not about your religious traditions and religious loopholes; it’s about what is in your heart. It’s about your heart. Don’t you get it? Forget your human traditions unless they are deepening your commitment to justice-love. Stop looking for the loopholes and follow God’s greatest commandment: to love God with all you heart and soul and mind and strength; and your neighbor as yourself. And when you do this, you don’t have to search for loopholes.
Well, this idea of loophole religion is what I wanted to talk to you about this morning but there is something else on my mind. I’ve been thinking this week about my role with you. As your pastor, it is my responsibility to raise questions about our identity and the vision of our community. It is my responsibility, as I see it, to prod and nudge and sometimes irritate and agitate in order to help us clarify who we want to be as a church and what we want our role to be in the world. I take this part of my role seriously. And in doing so, I am afraid that I often neglect offering my affirmation for all the good and faithful work you do as a congregation day in and day out. And so today, I want to say that I do not think you are a people practicing a loophole religion. I do not see you as a people stuck in hand-me-down traditions that are irrelevant to the gospel today.
I see you…I see you doing the hard work of discerning the traditions that still move us toward our vision of doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God. I see you letting go of the traditions that are no longer relevant to our mission. I see you Building and Grounds people taking care of this building so that the work can continue here at 1801 Hillsborough Street for future generations. I see you Finance and Stewardship Committee’s staying faithful in helping us reach our financial goals and remain financially strong. I see you Missions and Outreach Council leading us as we struggle to figure out how to love our neighbors who are vulnerable. I see you Education Council and all your groups making sure our children and youth and adults have opportunities to deepen their faith and nurture their spiritual lives. I see you Deacon Council leading our processes when it comes to making big and important decisions. I see you Pullen Mission Women caring for one another and praying for our church and supporting our international partnerships. I see you Siler Garden Committee tending to our grounds and our sacred burial space. I see you Congregational Care Council helping us care for one another. I see you Worship Council shaping our worship life. I see you Choir and orchestra as you lead us in worship Sunday after Sunday. From Personnel Committee to Peace and Justice and Care of Creation Mission Groups to Funeral and Hospitality Committee’s, I see you.
Every group that is serving the mission of this church to be a place of radical hospitality and radical welcome; every group that is nurturing and deepening our community to be a place where all are welcome, a place where we can agree to disagree—where the dissenting voice is respected without creating division, a place where every person is free to be their most authentic self, to follow the dictates of their conscience, a place where the questions are valued and the answers are less important…I see you. I see us living not a loophole religion but an authentic faith of the heart.
Yes, we all indulge in a little loopholing now and then, after all, it’s only human. But you are not a people to quibble about hand washing. You are a people who dare to seek the heart of God. You are a people who know that it is how we love and who we are willing to love that matters. You are, indeed, a people who seek justice, who love mercy and who are willing to walk humbly with our God.
You are to be celebrated, for you are a beautiful and faithful and authentic people giving witness to God’s radical love in this place, beyond these walls, and out in the world.