Practicing the Presence

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 3.35.58 PMBy John Frye:

Believe it or not practicing the presence of God did not start with Brother Lawrence. That practice began in earnest with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees sparked a holiness movement that became popular with the common folk in Galilee and Judea.  The Temple managed by the Levites was far away for most commoners. The Pharisees, without diluting the unique importance of the Temple and the Levites, wanted to guide people to apply levitical laws to all of life and to view their own home and communal groups as temple-like. We usually say we want to be Christ-like, the Pharisees believed we could be Torah-like and Temple-like.

We can imagine a Pharisee saying, “We want to make Torah practical, to guide you step by step to apply the Word of God to the particulars of your daily life. You can practice the presence of God Who lives in the Temple in your world by obeying these simple steps we offer. You can incarnate the Torah. You don’t have to be rich or smart.” Who could have a problem with this? Jesus did.

Mark 7:1-23 advances the reasons for growing hostility among Israel’s religious leaders for Jesus and his radical way of life. The issue that opens Mark 7 seems to be benign: eating food with unwashed hands. We must appreciate the high view of cleanliness laws advocated by the Pharisees and backed by the biblical scholars (the scribes). A showdown happened in Galilee because scribes from Jerusalem arrived to investigate Jesus. The disciples’ lax obedience to purity rules forks over Jesus to these leaders on a silver platter. Let’s follow the rationale for their sincere ministry: wash hands regularly and rightly as the Levites have to do; specified Jewish cleanliness laws for all people are a way of making Torah incarnate; behind Torah is the very voice of God.

By rightly washing hands, meticulous as the rules may be, is, therefore, a way of honoring God; practicing God’s presence. Even more, practicing God’s presence the way the Pharisees taught was what identified Jews as Jews, as God’s chosen ones. Hand-washing was an entrenched, doable identity-marker. For the Pharisees, their laws were at the heart of what it meant to be Israel. Jesus essentially shouted a resounding “No!” The word that came to Jesus’ lips the one and only time in Mark’s Gospel is “Hypocrites!”

The heart of the matter for Jesus was the heart of each individual person (Mark 7:20-21). The Pharisees had relocated Israel’s heart in some hygienic rules, identifying them as God’s people by what they did more than by who they were. Jesus called Isaiah the Prophet as witness (Isaiah 29:13) against the Pharisees and Jerusalem scribes for their substitution of the word of God for the word (traditions) of men. The more people followed the Pharisees, Jesus warned, the more distant they would become from God. Can you imagine the sting of this blistering, public rebuke to these otherwise good-intentioned leaders?

We live in an USAmerican evangelicalism that is increasingly desiring to practice the presence of God. The stress is on a whole life spirituality, not a Sunday charade. This is good. Spiritual formation courses, workshops and retreats abound. Spiritual direction books are a growing and welcomed emphasis. We want to make spirituality accessible and local…just like the Pharisees did. No vice is so vile as a virtue turned inward.

I urge us not to make spiritual disciplines the center of spirituality or offer Christian formation as a practical “how-to.” We are no less susceptible to making good habits and spiritual practices bigger than Jesus the Christ than the first century religious leaders were. Being Christ-like means becoming an increasingly loving person to everyone and all who come into our sphere of influence. With the example of the use of “Corban,” Jesus showed how laws overruled, even annulled down-to-earth love for one parents.

Taking his disciples with him, Jesus will be going into Gentile territory next to help a non-Jewish woman. The disciples are following not just the Jewish Messiah but also the Savior of the world. What will replace all the Jewish meticulous, scrupulous practices? The Christ-generated “law of love.” Love is the fulfillment of the law. Practicing the presence of God demonstrates God’s love.


About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.