Small Letter, Big Spirit

“… The Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, ‘Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?'” – Mark 7:5

Scripture sets so many traps. In Mark’s gospel the Pharisees and legal experts wandered into one. They saw the disciples skipping an important ritual. “Why don’t your followers obey the rules?” they asked. (Mark added, parenthetically, that the questioners do obey that rule, so maybe they felt justified in judging.) Jesus replied with a gnarly truth: even a scripture commandment can lead you astray, if you zoom in on the letter and distort the spirit of the law.

There’s another good trap in there – the one that catches us when we read that passage and pass judgment on the Pharisees. Whoops. That is much like zooming in on the letter but distorting the spirit of the story.

In the Peace Corps, a friend gave a presentation on the dangers of fly-borne diseases. She made beautiful visual aids — including an extraordinarily life-like drawing of a fly, about 12″ high so it could be seen by all. After the demonstration, a local resident came up shaking her head in concern. “We are so lucky here: our flies are tiny little things. Thank God we don’t have huge ones like you do.”

She taught us a Jesus-like lesson in perspective. Sometimes you need to zoom in to see detail. It’s good to have rediscover our own inner Pharisees, and appreciate them. But the law of love is expansive: we’re not done until we zoom back out to see how everyone belongs in God’s realm.


Dear God, we know you are in the details. But forgive me when I over-focus, and show us once more the big story of grace where there’s space for Pharisees and even me. Amen.

About the Author
John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts.