Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die. ’ 5 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. 6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: 8 ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. ’” (Matthew 15:1-9,NRSV)
The last two weeks for the nation’s new pastime have been the most horrific and tragic in quite a long time. The National Football League has suffered the violent loss of two of its players, the possible criminal indictment of a third and the tragic death of a girlfriend and mother of three. By now, sports enthusiasts and cultural watchers alike have been made aware of the case of Javon Belcher and his wife Kassandra Perkins. (Click here for more information on the case.)
The Murder-Suicide at the Kansas City Chief’s practice facility rocked the world with the violence and senselessness of the acts. There have been many op-eds and pundits examining the angles of this tragedy. Two of the more controversial perspectives came from NBC News Sportscaster Bob Costas and centered on the role of guns in the tragedy. Costas borrowed from a column of Fox News Journalists Jason Whitlock and centered on the US culture of big business sports, the role of guns and domestic violence in the tragedy.
Unfortunately, while we were still grappling with the horror of the events of December 1st, Dallas Cowboys Defensive Tackle Josh Brent and practice squad player Jerry Brown got into a car in which an intoxicated Brent decided to drive on December 7th. Brown was killed in the car accident and Josh Brent has been charged with a form of intoxicated manslaughter. In the wake of these tragedies, pundits have been quietly reflective on and muted in their responses out of respect for the evolving criminal nature of this tragedy.
In both of these horrific events, no one seems to be asking a more poignant question. While pundits and columnists have spent a great deal of time analyzing the players, our culture, and the proliferation of guns, it seems to me that now would be a good time to look in the mirror and examine what these tragedies and our responses to them say about our society.
Our text grapples with an interesting redefining of communal accountability. In this confrontation with the Pharisees in Matthew, Jesus and his disciples are caught violating rules of religious purity. In a swift retort, Jesus challenges their definitions of righteousness and piety. In the face of strict ritualistic obedience and adherence to tradition, Jesus confronts false piety and warped superstitions to free those who might be bound by these systems.
Adherence to the status quo for the sake of tradition and making up the rules as you go along are designed to keep people captive. Trapped and hopefully compliant, the Pharisees represent all that is wrong with many of our religious and institutional structures. They can be so dependent on people remaining in the system without hope of escape. Conformity, non thinking and non questioning participants keep the system going while at the same time remaining deeply entrenched in warped thinking.
Much of our allegiance to the gridiron sport of Sundays in the Fall and Winter is rooted now in deeply held traditions and beliefs about our teams, our athletes, and our culture of competition. Last year’s NFL labor dispute centered on the distribution of nearly 9 billion dollars in revenue between 33 teams. The Sports Entertainment Complex is an institution of our culture and like the religious institutions of Jesus’ day, self righteousness, adherence to honor and tradition, and false piety are all used to protect its interests.
Instead of focusing on the loss of two innocents, Kassandra Perkins and her three month old daughter, the Chiefs opt to compete a day after this awful tragedy. The Dallas Cowboys take to the field in competition while one of their own sits in a jail cell (he was released on bail Sunday night); many of their own players took the field with tears in their eyes. Instead of pausing and calling for moments of reflection and focus, NFL carries on under the banner of “getting back to a sense of normalcy.”
Our ‘get-over-it’, ‘suck-it-up’ culture is rooted in part in the way we play our sports. Players getting concussions week upon week and still going to play. Families and teams being torn asunder by pain and violence and the League moves on without disturbance or disruption. AND EACH WEEK WE TUNE IN TO KEEP THE INSTITUTION ALIVE…..
The Jesus of Matthew 15 is the Jesus that calls us to be liberated from blind obedience to our traditions. It isn’t our guns or our gladiator obsessed spectating that is causing this callous nature. Its simply us. More than anything, lets pause long enough to see the vision of truth that liberates the chains of spectating and blind allegiance to the field. I pray that we may be different so that Kassandra Perkins will not have died in vain….