Having just left the most religious city in the world, Jerusalem, I read Jesus’ encounter with the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees recorded in Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5 with fresh eyes.
On my flight to Jerusalem, I sat next to an Orthodox Rabbi who followed very strict rules. All his meals on the flight had to be kosher. He asked if he could switch seats with me for 30 minutes to pray. He wore his tzit tzit prayer shawl throughout the flight. He strapped phylacteries about his head and on his left arm (near his heart) while he prayed. He stood. He sat. He rocked. He chanted.
You see a lot of this at the Wailing Wall too. In fact, walking throughout the city, you see orthodox Jewish men wearing their black clothing with their tzit tzit dangling out from under their coat. They wear black hats, do not shave their beards, and certain sects grow their sideburns long, dangling in curls from out their hats.
In the Jewish Quarter, not only will you not find pork, but you also won’t find meat of any kind mixed wth dairy. No cheese burgers or pepperoni pizza.
And of course, the second most holy place on the face of the earth for Muslims is in Jerusalem. After Mecca, they revere the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock as the next holiest place of worship. They too have their rituals, with the way women dress, the hats the men wear, and the call to prayer heard multiple times a day across the Old City by loudspeaker.
And then in the Christian Quarter, at a site like the Church of the Holy Sepluchre, many rituals are also practiced. It’s actually not one church, but five, because each wants their piece of the Holy Sepluchre. Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Ethiopian Orthodox and Egyptian Copts. There you have tears, candles, prayers, anointing oil and various postures of worship.
John’s disciples and the Pharisees were upset because Jesus’ disciples were not abiding by the ritual practices for prayer and fasting.
Here Jesus gives two illustrations, the first about sewing a patch of new fabric onto an old garment. When washed, the new will shrink and tear away. Also, you can’t put new wine into old wine skins. The wine will ferment and expand, and because the old has no room to grow, it will burst.
Naturally, people prefer the old, saying it’s better. And humanly speaking, that’s true. As wine ages, it’s taste develops and it’s value increases. Jesus’ point isn’t to say that the old, the law and customs of Jewish tradition, are bad. They served their purpose. Now new wine was here and it would only be restricted by trying to fit it into the form of the old. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
Without the new wine of the Spirit, ritual is just empty religious piety attempting to please God through our sanctimonious self reliance.
I must admit though, I admire and aspire to the level of devotion that the deeply religious in Jerusalem exhibit. Their devotion touches every area of their lives. But I want a devotion motivated by love, grace and gratitude for my Heavenly Daddy rather than fear or comparison or striving to prove my worth.
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