When I was a curate, I needed to gain experience of leading worship at other churches. One local church offered me a memorable such experience! The motto on their news sheet was ‘proudly using only the Book of Common Prayer since 1798’, and before I was able to take a service there, the minister met me to talk me through what was required in terms of the way the service was to be conducted.
Although pre-pandemic we had a monthly Book of Common Prayer service in our church, and many of us love and appreciate the beauty and depth of the language, this was another level altogether! Every part of the service had a tightly defined set of movements or rituals to observe, co-ordinated with the liturgy. I carefully wrote them all in pencil in my copy of the Prayer Book – I still have them to hand even now, just in case – and thankfully survived the experience!
We humans love making rules for things. And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with rules in themselves. We couldn’t play sport if we didn’t have them. Or conduct an orchestra. Or organise any sort of meeting or society… the list goes on.
The thing is: rules make great servants, but lousy masters. The risk with rule-making is that the rule obscures the reality. And what Jesus is challenging here is not rules in themselves, but priorities. Jesus wants life and behaviour to flow from our hearts. Out of the heart the actions follow. What he criticises the Pharisees for is that they are great at following rules, but haven’t attended to the motive behind the rules. Ceremonial washing is meant to symbolise what God is doing in our hearts: but – as Jesus points out quite bluntly – what’s the point of clean hands if your heart is ‘dirty’?
What the Pharisees needed was we might call ‘open heart surgery’. And that remains true for all of us, too. What is God doing in your heart at present? Today, let’s pray into that, giving thanks that our faith is not a set of rules – but a life-giving journey of the heart.