Proper 17B – August 29, 2021
Some phrases that echo from my childhood include “Gretchen, take your elbows off the table.” “Cover your mouth when you sneeze.” (That one stems from an awkward incident when I was three. There was rice for dinner, and I had a mouthful of it. And I sneezed.) To this day my older sister reminds me of that, because it was her dinner that I rather sullied since I hadn’t covered my mouth.
And then that was that awful “Eat all your peas. Think of the starving children in China.” Or the “if you don’t clean up your plate, you can’t have dessert.” If I had been a kid who talked back (which I did only one memorable time – but that’s another story) I’d have pointed out that if I ate everything on my plate, I wouldn’t have room for dessert.
And we probably all remember “Wash your hands. Dinner’s ready.” You know, when I told my kids to wash up for dinner, I don’t remember them ever saying, “But Jesus’s disciples didn’t have to wash their hands before they ate! “Yet the elders criticize Jesus’s disciples for not doing the ritual hand-washing before sitting down to eat.
The issue is ritual of course, not hygiene. There was indeed a certain ritual to hand washing. The danger in any ritual, in any handed-down tradition, is that form can replace meaning. What was initially intended by the ritual becomes disassociated from the original version, and the intrinsic meaning gets lost.
Now the Pharisees were very protective of God’s Law. So what they decided to do was build a protective wall around the law, which consisted, it seems, of 613 commandments. I know. That’s more than ten.
But when you delve into the Old Testament, you find a lot of extra rules and regulations. The wall that the Pharisees constructed had as many as 1500 additional laws to protect the original commandments.
To a certain extent, that used to happen in my own classroom, though instead of ten commandments I had only one. One classroom rule. It covered everything. It was Respect everyone’s right to learn. That was it. It really did cover everything.
But. Sometimes there would be a class, or a kid, or a group of kids, who would do something inappropriate, sometimes again and again. When that happened, we’d supplement the single rule with an appropriate additional one.
In one second period English class there was to be no gum chewing. NONE. Zero. Not one piece. That happened because some anonymous student left a freshly chewed piece of gum where someone else sat on it or stepped on it. So. Absolutely no gum chewing. The new rule applied only in that second period English class and then only until the end of the semester. Then, back to the single rule. I was not trying to be like the Pharisees.
The Pharisaic logic was like this: by putting up the fence, the protective barrier, around the Holy Law, one would first have to break the protective law before they would break God’s law and become thereby terribly guilty and need to be punished.
I suspect that the Pharisees felt that their additional laws helped the people obey the central commandments. Actually enabled them to obey them. So they were protecting the Law and the people.
There’s a story about a man who every morning began his day with some Bible reading and meditation. He’d often be annoyed by his cat, who would jump up on his lap, disturbing his concentration. He solved the problem by tying the cat to the bedpost. Then he could read and meditate without interruption. The man’s son admired his practice of reading and meditation. Now modern life gets hectic. Mornings get busy. So every morning the son would tie the cat to the bedpost (that’s the ritual fence) and read a passage in the Bible, but he didn’t take time to meditate. As time went on, life got more hectic. The son’s daughter, the man’s granddaughter, wanted to emulate her father’s pious practice. So every morning she tied the cat to the bedpost. No Bible reading, no meditation -- just the cat ritual.
Solid food turned into empty calories. By the way, l don’t know the end of the story. I don’t know when the cat ever got untied. I am reminded of a student I had in high school, a young man who sometimes attended St. John’s. He’d hang around after our last class until 3:35, when the school day was officially over, and this teacher slash priest was free to talk about religion. We had really great discussions. He was concerned that the Episcopal liturgy was so ritualized that worshipers worshiped by rote. Mouth in gear, brain not necessarily engaged. He felt we were in danger of doing form without meaning. Solid food becoming empty calories.
It pleases me to know that these days he’s a missionary, teaching English as a second language in Malaysia and sharing the Gospel, including, no doubt, teaching about Jesus and the Pharisees and their disagreements.
Let’s go back to the Pharisees in today’s gospel reading, which is explaining why Jesus criticizes the elders for criticizing the disciples for eating with defiled hands.
So what’s this about hand-washing? Well, in an ancient agrarian community the person who has been rubbing down the oxen or fertilizing the fruit trees or clearing a drainage ditch would expect to perform a handwashing before eating.
So would a modern worker who has greased the tractor or mixed insecticide. On the dining hall porch of an Israeli kibbutz today there is a water pipe with several spigots above a sink where farm workers wash up before a meal.
Of course here are other occupations in which handwashing is equally necessary, medicine being the most obvious. And of course these days we’re practically washing the very skin off our hands in order to help stave off Covid. How sensible.
Jesus found that the sensible rules, however, had been developed into restrictive traditions. So, when the disciples, who have not been handling anything that will soil their hands, begin to eat without performing the ceremonial washing, their action is condemned by the experts in religious tradition.
These experts taught that washing your hands was far more than just cleaning your hands for eating. It was a spiritual act that had to be done just so. The fingertips had to be pointed upward, the water needed to be poured down only to the wrists, and the fist of one hand had to be rubbed in the palm of the other. Otherwise the procedure would be invalid, and the person would be ritually unclean, even if the hands were dirt-free.
This custom, which had been designed originally to express a profound belief, had become a fastidious end in itself. Form had taken precedence over substance.
Eating and washing up were at the center of the ongoing dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees. It’s what Martin Luther called the conflict between Law and Gospel, and what St. Paul speaks of as the difference between being justified by grace through faith and being justified by grace through works of Law. What’s interesting about the dispute is the way it causes us to look at who is “right” and who is “wrong.”
In the first century there was a group of activists who came down on the right side of all values questions – as opposed to the left side. They were unwavering adherents of ethical absolutism. They were committed to the values of monogamy in marriage and chastity outside it. That’s good, right? They promoted monotheism against the polytheistic Roman paganism. That’s good, isn’t it? They were the religious right of Israel, and they followed the law to the last letter. What makes that interesting is that the people who held the right values were the ones least responsive to Jesus’s message and the most likely to receive his reprimands.
That’s so easy for us to see nowadays because we have the privilege of hindsight. But had I been of the Pharisee persuasion back in those days, I think I would have been puzzled by Jesus’s assertions and criticisms. I would have been sure of what was right behavior – right because my parents and teachers and rabbis would have told me so.
As a child, I was unbearably stubborn. I don’t know how long I insisted that 100 and 100 is 1000. I know that the child Gretchen always stuck to her righteous guns; and that makes me retrospectively kind of sad. I think had I encountered Jesus in my youth back then, I would quite possibly have missed the boat. And realizing that, I have developed a new-found sympathy for the Pharisees.
At any rate, those who did hold the “right” values were indeed the ones least responsive to Jesus’s message. However, his message was received with the greatest eagerness by those who came down on the wrong side of all the values issues –the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the religious half-breeds.
To be sure Jesus frequently occupied the Pharisees’ circles as a dinner guest and intellectual companion, and there were even those within that group who embraced him. Nonetheless, most Pharisees could not accept Jesus’s radical claims and actions in light of their reading of the Holy Scriptures.
The ironic result of their “rightness” in belief and practice was that they became unable to love. They did not want the sick to be healed on the Sabbath. They did not want the adulterous woman to be forgiven. They did not want sinners to share fellowship with the righteous. They came to see the people they were called to love as “the other.” “Them.” “The enemy.”
It’s a dangerous thing on questions of truth and significance to be wrong. But there may be a more dangerous thing: being right and knowing it. It’s possible to be so caught up In the joy of being right, in the thrilling sense of being morally superior to those who are “not right” ….
Maybe we’d better stop right here for some silent congregation-participation – way inside your mind. You don’t need to admit this to anyone except to God. Picture or name some people or some groups, or one group, or one person, who is “not right.” Because of their lifestyle. Maybe because of the family they come from. Or because of their worship style or their socio-economic class or their drug use or their political affiliations or your previous relationships. Probably most of us have people or groups of people we paint with the brush of “not right.”
It’s possible to be so caught up in the joy of being right, in that thrilling sense of being morally superior to those who are “not right,” that we become more wrong than our most wrong-headed opponent. That’s why certain Pharisees – who were so careful not to commit adultery or steal or murder were deeply offended when Jesus says they are further from the Kingdom of God than, say, some of those people on our private lists.
What if it is at least as important to love as to be right? What if Jesus really means it when he says that the heart of the Law is to love God with your entire being and to love your neighbor as yourself rather than to wash your hands with the fingertips held in the correct position? What if Paul really means it when he says that even if he has all knowledge, even if he gets everything right, he is nothing if he doesn’t have love?
The primary task of the church is not to make a powerful argument for Christian values in society. The primary task of the church is to participate in and witness to the love of the Gospel – that’s discipleship. And the Gospel Jesus proclaims is an invitation to live in the presence of and under the reign of our loving God. Part of being a Christian, and in particular a Protestant, is the conviction that traditions need to be checked now and then to see if they need to be reformed. The values to which we are called are not specifically the values of any past tradition, but the eternal values taught and lived by Jesus and expressed authoritatively in the Bible, values which stand over and above every party platform and political agenda.
That is not to advocate silence or apathy or neutrality on controversial issues. It’s just that we must not allow the issues to overshadow one of the church’s primary tasks, the task of discipleship. Discipleship does not come through holding a certain set of values or subscribing to certain “right” practices like washing the hands with ritual precision.
Discipleship comes through living a certain kind of life. “All men will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus says, not “if you promote my agenda,” but “if you love one another.” A watching world will be persuaded when our values are incarnated in us – when we live them.
May we remember that Christ’s call is not an invitation to be on the “right” side; it is not even an invitation to wash our hands before eating, to keep our elbows off the table or to cover our mouth when we sneeze. It is an invitation simply to love one another.