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September 07 – Thought for the Month
All around the nation there are children preparing to go to school for the very first time. For some it will be their first experience as they start Junior School, for others a change as they move to a new school. For each a new challenge, not least in the new set of rules that they will be confronted by. Which side of the corridor to walk along, how to address their teachers, what colour shoes may be worn and where they are allowed and not allowed to play. Looking back at school life we may reflect that some of the rules seemed to make very good sense and helped the well-being of the whole community. Other rules seemed to be for the benefit of a few, generally the staff.
School isn’t the only place where we find rules that govern the way we live life, or the only place where rules can annoy. Some shopping centres ban hoodies, some roads have those cameras that blink at you as you travel past and result in a surprise letter imposing a fine. Is it right to be more annoyed about a gang of teenagers in a shopping centre wearing their choice of clothing or a motorist speeding at 35mph in a residential area? Our reaction to different rules may say something about us as individuals rather than the merits of the rules. There’s a bit of a contentious issue going on at the moment in church about the ‘No Smoking’ signs on our church doors.


Jewish law
Now wind back 2000 years to 1st century Palestine, and we discover that, like our society, there are rules which people are called to live by, some which were well regarded, others less so. In the Jewish society there were two parallel streams of law. One was the written law or teaching, which is found in the first five books of the Bible. The second set of rules was an oral law that was developed by religious leaders to interpret the written law, in order to give guidance to people in the conduct of their daily living.
In a story from Mark’s gospel the leaders confront Jesus over the habit that he and his disciples had of not washing their hands before meals. They were breaking the unwritten law of the leaders. This might seem a relatively minor offence to us, but in the culture of their day it was highly significant. The establishment viewed cleanliness as crucial. They believed that only those who belonged to the covenant of God’s chosen were holy, and to maintain their holiness they had to avoid contact with non-covenant people – so called pagans that would be people like us. In first-century Palestine there were many rules which ordered their lives including observing the Sabbath, (Sunday observance). What foods they could or couldn’t eat and their cleanliness rituals. Challenge some of these and you undermine what it is to be a Jew. Uphold them and you keep people holy in a world of many gods and many practices.


Impossible laws to keep
In fact some of the written cleanliness laws were impossible to keep. You couldn’t avoid brushing up against others in the market or picking up something that may have become tainted by another person’s touch. To deal with these issues the spoken law developed a ritual rite involving washing hands, food and utensils to ensure cleanliness to keep the people holy. This is what upset the leaders so much, Jesus and his disciples actions were not so much about their hygiene as their disregard for the law.
Jesus though was more concerned about what was in the hearts of people and their attitude to their neighbour. He was more concerned about how they treated each other than any ritual washing. So here is the challenge for us, Jesus isn’t so concerned about the minutiae of a particular law but about the way faith is observed in the heart. In our honest moments most of us struggle to apply what we would understand as Christian to other parts of our life. It has been said that there is a thin line between being the prodigal son and the resentful elder brother.
The whole Bible offers guidance for our lives, and we can use it to help us make decisions about our way of living. From the book of Deuteronomy through the psalms to the gospels and the letters of the New Testament, we can find teaching on how to live our lives. There are many other guides equally as good. We need to make choices as people living in a community. We may place far greater emphasis on the teaching and life of Jesus, whose life story is inspiring, and who summed up the important aspects of the law as loving God and our neighbour as ourselves. We may use other means. But whatever means we use the rules are here to stay and we will have people watching us to make sure we uphold them. Rules, rules, rules. We meet them at school, out shopping, on the road and throughout life. How we keep them the choice is ours.
With all my love and prayers
Ian