Matthew 15:1-9. Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God’, then that person need not honor the father or mother. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
This church is surrounded by tall office buildings and cemeteries. And what sorts of people occupy these buildings and these cemeteries? Well, many of them are lawyers. In fact, I am a lawyer. I work at a law firm in a building right across the street.
And it’s safe to say, from this text and from others in the Bible (particularly Luke) that Jesus was not a big fan of lawyers. Scribes, Pharisees and lawyers are often grouped together, or play the same roles, in New Testament stories – they’re the ones who know the rules.
Why such scorn for lawyers, or experts in religious law? In today’s lesson, Jesus calls them hypocrites, because they accuse him and his disciples of ignoring the rules, or traditions of the elders, about washing their hands before they eat. He responds by telling them that the rules they ignore themselves, like the ten commandments, are far more significant. He says that they pay lip service to the law, and only follow it when it’s expedient for them, but then they use it as a way to criticize others.
Jesus got cranky with legal experts, I think, because he was a minimalist where the law was concerned. He believed in a few fundamental goals for our lives, and he preferred to stick with the big picture. Given that mindset, he had no patience with detailed restrictions, even those that were held dear within his own faith, if they appeared to conflict with the ultimate goals. So if he wanted to heal a man’s withered arm on the Sabbath, he went right ahead. If his disciples didn’t wash their hands every time, he didn’t care. And when the experts followed him around and tried to trick him on the fine points of the law, he got even crankier.
His view, it seems, was that legal authorities are so obsessed with the technical rules that they can’t see the larger purpose of life and faith. They burden other people with these rules, without understanding or caring about the damaging effects. They obsess over technicalities when there are more important issues at stake. They’re profoundly annoying. That’s a commonly held perception -- even today.
So, how to be a good lawyer and a good Christian at the same time? Jesus would not want us to divorce our faith from our vocation, or check our professional lives at the church door. And there are certainly sectors of the legal community, working right near this church right now, in which attorneys carry out the deeply Christian mission of representing the poor, the stranger, and the prisoner. Those lawyers are practicing their profession and their faith at the same time. Others decide to pursue a Christian mission outside of their primary jobs, handling pro bono legal cases, serving on charitable boards, or making gifts to their churches.
But many attorneys wish to practice their faith as part of their work, to give it more meaning and significance. Most occupations offer ways to show kindness and compassion, even the legal profession (believe it or not). Christian virtues can be very helpful to lawyers, in fact. My own work as an attorney gives me many opportunities to practice my faith, since I am frequently asked for advice about resolving the personal concerns of members of my clients’ communities. In my many years as a lawyer, I have learned that people don’t sue because they get hurt; they sue because they don’t feel respected by others. A humane approach, even within a very litigious context, is almost invariably the most successful one. And I can certainly tell you that I respond much more favorably when opposing counsel calls me with a calm, practical approach, rather than a strident recital of technical rules. I get almost as cranky as Jesus would!
Attorneys are responsible for learning and respecting the rules in all of their complexity; that’s our job. But a religious lawyer also tries to see through and beyond those rules to the larger goals of the client and the society. And lawyers are often present in those private places, behind closed doors and during after-hours phone calls, when high-level decisions are quietly made that affect the lives of others. Sometimes only the lawyer in the group has the chance to suggest that while the approach under consideration might be legal, it would be wrong. Sometimes only the lawyer can say, I understand the concern, but here’s a less disruptive way to achieve the goal. And of course we don’t say it, but when we’re doing his work in that way, Jesus is there.
In closing, here’s a lawyer who said the right thing:
Luke 10:25-28: Just then, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what
must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do
you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your
neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this
and you will live.”
Lord, help us to use our talents, whatever they may be, in the work that you have given
us to do in the world. Help us to do justice, and to love mercy, and walk humbly with
our God in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.