​Look Beyond the Letters

Grace to you!

It could be a challenging task to clear the reading desk of many senior academics. You are not certain what is essential and what isn’t. Though the table is messy, the academic sees every little paper on that desk as necessary. 

This scenario isn’t the case only with scholars; many of us have messy desks and untidy studies. We’ve gotten used to keeping things in a particular way that any attempt by a cleaner to organize them is uncomfortable. 

The above simple analogy relates to our everyday life in many ways. Often, we get used to a particular way of living and ignore the core values that matter the most. Finding a routine is good, more comfortable, and less stressful. However, in many other cases, it could be a barrier to the Spirit. 

Consider the legalism in many of our cultures, some of which may not necessarily align with our Christian faith. Coming from Africa, where traditional culture is vital, I know this first hand. 

On several occasions, the Blessed Lord Jesus confronted legalism among his followers and his brethren. One case is when a Pharisee invited him for dinner. See the setting as documented in Scripture: “The Pharisee was amazed to see that he [Jesus] did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal. The Lord said to him, “Oh, you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:38-41).

Harsh as this may sound to some people, the Lord hits home his objection to hypocrisy and legalism. They are practices that ignore the essentials of true holiness under the guise of external observances. They look so good on the outside, but not so on the inside. 

The problem of the Pharisee in the above story wasn’t because of hygienic concerns. For sanitary reasons, one must wash their hands before one eats. Instead, it was because of a broader rite of ritual purification. The tradition was that one must ritually wash their hands to prevent contaminating the entire person from what the hands had touched. It doesn’t matter if the person had thoroughly cleaned their hands minutes earlier.

Ritual washing is a religious ceremony and follows a strict format. It includes pouring water out from a cup or jar, first twice over the right hand, and then twice over the left hand. While doing so, one makes sure the unpurified hands do not touch the ritual’s water before it is poured. While this is going on, a prayer/benediction is recited: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Thy commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.” Then the hands are dried with a towel before one enjoys the meal. 

This ritual seems pleasant, and the prayer is beautiful. Isn’t it? However, the belief that if the hands were not ritually washed, any food taken with them would contaminate the entire person was erroneous. It makes purity or holiness a matter of physical, mechanical process rather than inner transformation and virtue. 

Remember when the Blessed Lord Jesus stated that it is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes out of him (Matthew 15:11). It’s all in line with his teaching here.

May we always realize that external observances are not complete without interior transformation—the practice of virtue. May we be inspired to keep, not merely the letters of the law, but the spirit. When our hearts are open to the Spirit, we are equally opening our hearts to the love of God and one another. Amen.
I am praying for the grace of inner renewal and anointing, which manifests in good, holy works and behavior. Amen. 

God love you. God bless you.

Fr. Maurice Emelu 

[Tuesday Week 28: Gal 5:1-6; Lk 11:37-41]

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Fr. Maurice Emelu

The Reverend Dr. Maurice Emelu is a media scholar, theologian, author, and a visiting assistant professor of communication at John Carroll University, USA. He is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Orlu in Nigeria and the founder of Gratia Vobis Ministries, USA.

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