When my wife decided to clean our children’s fish aquarium with a dose of anti-fungus agent, I thought that was a good idea. Less of the green slime in the tank is a good plan if you ask me. But when she medicated the water with ten times the recommended dose, things didn’t go as well as she had hoped. See, in her eagerness to rid the pet fishes’ world of contamination, she misread the box and misapplied the remedy. The algae-killing concoction was not for a little one gallon tank like ours. It was for the treatment of ten gallons.
We didn’t know there was a problem until the next morning when we found four goldfish half-scuttled at the top of the tank begging for air. Thankfully, we intervened with a successful rescue operation just before our beloved pets went to the great fishbowl in the sky.
My wife’s zeal was a prime example of how too much of a good thing can become toxic rather than being helpful; not unlike religion. Don’t bristle at such a statement. Hear me out. When it comes to the practice of faith, such practice is like a pharmaceutical. Within it, there is the power to heal and restore, or there is the power to consume and destroy. It can be a remedy for the soul’s ills, or it can be deadly poison, for the practitioner and everyone he or she encounters.
Maybe this was what Jesus was getting at when he warned his disciples: “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16)! The Pharisees and Sadducees were religious zealots consumed with rituals, sacred protocols, and proper ceremonies. Certainly these people had good and worthy intentions: They wanted to please God and see others do the same. Yet, their application of the product was over the top. Jesus would say later, “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. They shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23).
Yes, what the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted was virtuous. But all their passion and enthusiasm left those around them floating belly-up, begging for air and mercy. And as certain as their zeal is their legacy; the religious zealot lingers well into the twenty-first century, giving ten-gallon treatments to every one gallon he or she encounters.
The Pharisee of today doesn’t walk the hills of Judea, as in Jesus’ time. He is a Bible-thumping televangelist with a list of dos-and-don’t as long as your arm and as heavy as millstone, angry as hell itself at those to whom he preaches. He is the radical cleric who seems to have heard God’s final and complete word for humanity, a word that is as fixed as concrete and leads to nothing but oppression and injustice. She is the entrenched church-goer whose biblical interpretations are as stuck and stuffed as she is. No mercy, no grace, no second-chances, no reprieves: Quite frankly, nothing like Jesus.
To those struggling to breathe beneath the overdose of ritual and inflexibility Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matthew 11).
So what about those of us who bear the Christian name? What do we offer the heavy leaden? Do we extend the invitation of the gentle, loving Christ who held rest in his hand, or do we dish out more and more obligation, attempting to cleanse the lives of others until they can’t breathe?
I agree: People would live healthier, more whole, spiritual lives with a little less goop in their lives. But let’s make sure we don’t over-treat those around us. What we think will help them, might actually send them belly-up to the surface.