Sunday, 16 August 2020

Clean and unclean

 Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 16th August 2020, the 10th after Trinity.

‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’, as surely we all heard as children.

A lot of people think this proverb must come from the Bible, since the Bible has so much to say about cleanliness, but it does not. The idea behind it can be traced back to the Babylonians, to the earliest civilisations we know of. And the first known use of the phrase in English is in a sermon by John Wesley from as late as 1778.

As we learn to live with Covid-19, we realise just how important cleanliness is to our health and the health of our communities. If we are to beat the virus, we must avoid contaminating ourselves and others. Among other things we must wash our hands frequently. In particular, we ought to do so before we leave our homes, in case we are infected, to lower the risk of spreading the virus to other people. And we ought to do so again when we return home from public places, to lower the risk of bringing the virus into our households from outside. We must also for the time being avoid close physical contact with our neighbours, even in our churches.

For Jews of Jesus’s time ceremonial cleanliness was truly next to godliness. 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 a pig, to a dead body, a menstruating woman, or a gentile. And this uncleanliness 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 roots in sensible and practical hygiene. But by the time of Jesus religious leaders had elaborated them into a complicated system of religious law to purify unclean things to make them clean. This 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.

This is the background to today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 15:10-28).

A party of scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem has just challenged Jesus, saying ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’  He 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, in the first part of today’s reading, 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.’

In other words, Jesus says, what matters to God is not our ritual observance, but the state of our hearts, which may lead us to do wrong. No wonder the Pharisees took offence! If Jesus is right, their whole theory of religion is wrong, their rules and regulations about purity have nothing to do with being righteous before God. Instead God requires them to look inside themselves, to control those human impulses which might lead to bad deeds, which might lead them into sin.

We Christians don’t have rituals to purify ourselves as many religions do, including modern Jews, Muslims and Hindus.

Though that doesn’t mean we don’t have taboos – I’ve yet to see horse on the menu in Ireland!

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 disputes between Christians about ritual and tradition all too often do just that.

Details of ritual and tradition keep Christians of different denominations from recognising each other’s baptism, or from sharing in the Lord’s Supper. And our Anglican Communion is threatened by schism over disputes about the ordination of women, the acceptability of homosexual behaviour, and equal marriage.

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 who claim to be Christians should reflect on Jesus’s advice on how to deal with Pharisees. ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.’, he says. ‘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, leave it to God to deal with those who we think are mistaken.

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 they are mistaken, 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 we are mistaken!

I shall finish in prayer

God our loving Father,

grant us wisdom to distinguish right from wrong.

May our hearts bring forth only what is righteous in your sight,

and make us agents of your peace,

spreading good news for all people.

We pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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