October 30th, 2020

Ritual and spiritual

By Submitted Article on January 4, 2020.


Second of three parts

Jacob M. Van Zyl

Jesus told the Pharisees that they cleansed only the outside of the cup, leaving the inside unclean. He meant that they focus on the outside appearance, which people can see and applaud, while they neglected the inner attitude. That’s why he called them hypocrites, the Greek word for play-actors: they act on stage as if they were a certain character, without really being that character.

One result of this approach was that rituals became more important to them than the truth behind the rituals. They obeyed the laws of Moses literally but neglected the spirit of the law: love for God and people. They gave a tenth of everything they acquired, but neglected charity to widows and aging parents.

Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is a correction of the external, legalistic religion of the Pharisees. Over and over, he contrasts the legalistic interpretation of the Pharisees with the deeper spiritual meaning of the law. He warned that the Pharisee attitude had severe consequences: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). By “exceeds” he meant quality, not quantity.

He showed the difference between him and the Pharisees by referring to the commands about murder, adultery and oaths. He applied his principles also to prayer, money, worry and criticism.

He said those who applied his principles are like the wise who build their homes on rock, able to survive storms. Those who follow the Pharisees, build their homes on sand; the storms will sweep them away.

Christ’s clashes with the religious leaders occurred mainly about Sabbath laws, and rituals such as washing of hands and furniture.

He pointed out to them that they attended to the needs of their animals on the Sabbath; likewise, he attended to the needs of humans on the Sabbath. As they untied their donkeys and took them to water on the day of rest, so he untied a woman from her disability on the day of rest. They got stuck in external do’s and don’ts; Jesus looked at the attitude of their hearts.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and Levite avoided the wounded man on the roadside, so they could remain ritually clean to serve in the temple. Ritual purity was more important to them than practical love.

The Good Samaritan, on the other hand, did not worry about purity, danger, cost or social opinion; he turned out to the wounded man, nursed his wounds, took him on his donkey to an inn and arranged for his further care.

Jesus healed 10 lepers. The nine Jews went to the temple to fulfil the law; the Samaritan turned back and thanked Jesus.

Jacob Van Zyl of Lethbridge is a retired counsellor and the author of several faith-based books.

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