Proper 17 Year B: The Gospel According To Stravinsky

Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9
Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

In music school, we read a lot of letters written by composers about different aspects of their lives and music. One letter was from Igor Stravinsky, who at the time was thought to be a wild man, throwing all rules of composition out the window. However, in the letter he said : “ the more rules I place on my compositions, the freer I am to compose”.  He let the rules be a structure for his music, so he could make something meaningful and beautiful on top of that structure. Rules are important. Anyone living in a monastery knows that. Monastic rules help us live together as a group in relative peace while at the same time giving individuals room to flourish and reach maturity. Just as there are many different sets of  monastic rules, so are there many sets of rules in the Bible. Our first reading is an account of a speech that Moses is giving to the Israelites just before they cross over the Jordan and take possession of Canaan. Moses make it clear that the rules will help them prosper and will be a good example to other nations. He also says that they must never change the rules, but that is a little problematic, because a careful reading of all the lists of rules promulgated between Mount Sinai and the Jordan shows some differences between them. So which list are they to obey? The latest version? Or the version that makes them feel best because they are already keeping them while others whom they fear are breaking them? Or the version that helps the most people grow in their individual vocations while also helping the group live together in peace? Of course, that is the question we always need to ask, whether or not we live in a monastery: which version of the rules should I follow?

The Letter of James (in our second reading) is asking that very question, and the answer it comes up with is: “follow the law of liberty – help people in need, speak and act lovingly and wisely, listen more than you speak, clean the greed and fear from your hearts and minds, and don’t let anger control your actions.” The Letter suggests doing all this by “welcoming with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls”. That sounds a lot like what we call “lectio divina” – prayerful reading of scripture. Of course, merely prayerfully reading scripture or anything else that we do can’t save our souls – only God can do that. But the things we do will have an affect on whether or not the salvation already given by God can be seen in our lives. We are given life, but it is up to us to take care of that life and do what it takes to help it grow. So we are given rules to help us grow, but at first, many of the rules don’t make sense because we need to see the big picture in order to see how they all work together to help the individual as well as the community. We also need to make sure that we are following the rules with mindfulness and intentionality – realizing that we are doing things a certain way in order give ourselves and others space to grow. And in those times when the rules just seem too much for us to handle, we need to keep on following them with constancy and perseverance so that we can eventually follow them with love and joy. It is our choice to either let the rules free us and help us flourish, or to let them become a prison and suffocate us. It is our choice to either let the rules teach us the liberating truth that it is not all about me, or to let them make us whine : “what about me?”

Constancy and perseverance are two good tools to teach us the liberating truth that it is not all about me. The quotation from James: “welcoming with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” also sounds like what we do every day up at the altar – we hold out our hands to take Jesus into our lives. Jesus is the word of God, and all we need to do is open ourselves in order to take him in. We can’t let Jesus in to our lives fully when we are preoccupied with ourselves.

Our gospel story is about the dangers of thinking that it is all about me. Jesus makes it clear that sin is not necessarily defined as breaking the rules, but rather as anything we do when we let our own pride and greed direct our actions, whether or not any rules were broken. The Pharisees that started the discussion with Jesus have an undeserved bad reputation. Most of them were not bad people – they were good, sincere people who were trying to do the right thing. Jesus just showed them that doing the right thing involved more than following the rules. He did not say the rules were bad, only that they were part of the picture, not the whole picture. Rules are important, because they are there to help people, but people are more important than rules. Sometimes, breaking a rule is the right thing to do, even when it makes us uncomfortable or look bad in the eyes of others; sometimes, keeping a rule is the right thing to do, even when it makes us uncomfortable or look bad in the eyes of others. Knowing when to break rules takes a lot of maturity and prayer, and knowing when to keep rules takes a lot of maturity and prayer.

It is also true that rules are not necessarily universal or helpful in all times and places. One gets a glimpse of that in the different lists of rules in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Sometimes, the lists begin with the phrase: “When you cross the Jordan…”, so it sounds like the rules were meant only for life in the promised land. They did not have many of the rules before the exodus, and they could not keep many of the rules after the exile, but that did not make them any more or less faithful to God. So we should be aware of when rules need to change – in our private lives, in the monastery, in the church as a whole, and in our society. As with knowing when to keep or break rules, knowing when to change rules take a lot of maturity and prayer, and should not be done rashly (but neither should it be forbidden). As the two old sayings go: “don’t fix something unless it is broken” and “the past has a vote, not a veto.”

We are called to a life of maturity in Christ, and we all know from growing up that one needs boundaries and structure to grow up. One also needs wisdom and prayer. So may we be grateful for the structures of our lives – in the monastery, in the church, and in our nation. May we wisely and thankfully follow them, and may we be open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting when they need modification or overhaul. May we, like Stravinsky, find great freedom in the gift of rules, so that we can make something meaningful and beautiful out of our lives.   AMEN