Sunday, 14 August 2011

Clean & Unclean

Address given at Templederry & Nenagh on 14th August 2011, the 8th Sunday after Trinity, year A.

To be ritually clean was all important to Jews of Jesus’s time.
Jewish law forbade anyone who was unclean from approaching God in worship, and such a person would be shunned by all pious Jews. They believed that a person or thing was made unclean by contact with a wide range of things, from a mouse to pig meat, to a dead body, a menstruating woman, or a gentile. And this uncleanness was, so to speak, infectious. If a mouse touched a pot, the pot became unclean and anything put in it became unclean. Anyone who touched or ate anything from the pot became unclean. And anyone who touched such an unclean person became unclean themselves.

No doubt these ideas had their ancient roots in sensible, practical hygiene. But by the time of Jesus they had nothing to do with good sense or hygiene. Religious leaders had elaborated in religious law a complicated system of purifying unclean things to make them clean, which included ritual washing of hands before meals. For the scribes and Pharisees, following the correct washing rituals had become as important as keeping every other aspect of the Jewish Law, including the Ten Commandments. The rituals had got quite out of hand.

This is the background to today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 15:10-20).
Just before the reading, a party of scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem has challenged Jesus, saying ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ Jesus chides them, calling them hypocrites, for insisting people obey the details of a man-made tradition while ignoring the spirit of God’s law expressed in the Ten Commandments.

Then he turns to the crowd, telling them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out that defiles’. As he explains to Peter, ‘What ever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer. But what comes from the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’

In other words, Jesus says, what matters to God is not ritual observance, but the state of our hearts, because it is the state of our hearts that leads us to bad deeds. No wonder the Pharisees took offence! If Jesus is right, their whole theory of religion is wrong, their rules and regulations about purity are pointless. Instead true religion requires them to look inside themselves, to control their human impulses which lead to bad deeds. It si these which offend God, which lead them into sin

We Christians don’t have rituals to purify ourselves as many religions do, including modern Jews, Muslim’s and Hindus.
Though that doesn’t mean we don’t have taboos – I’ve yet to see horse on the menu in Ireland, though it is a delicious meat!

But we have built up great edifices of ritual and tradition over time, as all religions have. No doubt ritual and tradition can be helpful – but only to the extent to which they help us look into our hearts and strive to live as God intends us to live, loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves. In today’s reading Jesus teaches us that we must not let our rituals and traditions get in the way of this. But unfortunately ritual and tradition all too often do just that, causing disputes between Christians.

Some issues are quite trivial, such as whether or not to share the sign of peace. Others are more serious. Details of ritual and tradition keep Christians of different denominations from recognising each other’s baptism, or sharing in the Lord’s Supper. And our Anglican Communion is threatened by schism over disputes about the ordination of women and the acceptability of homosexual behaviour, in which people appeal to tradition to make their cases.

Christians engaging in such disputes should, I think, reflect on Jesus’s teaching in today’s Gospel. What matters is the state of a person’s heart, and the deeds it prompts, not their ritual observance and tradition.

And all Christians should also reflect on Jesus’s advice on how to deal with Pharisees.
This what he says: ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into the pit.’ In other words, he says, leave it to God to deal with those who wrong.

When we conscientiously disagree about what is right or wrong, we should not try to bludgeon our opponents into accepting our view. We must do what our God given conscience and reason tell us is right. But we should leave those with whom we disagree to go their own way. If that causes schism, so be it. If they are wrong, if they are ‘the blind leading the blind’, our heavenly Father will deal with them in his own way.

As he will deal with us if it is we that are wrong! We need to pray for guidance, and listen carefully to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so that we do not fall into the pit like the Pharisees of Jesus's day.

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