Sermon August 16 ~ Matt 15:10-20 Rules and Righteousness Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever stopped to wonder how people discovered ancient medicines and healing techniques? Thousands of years before our modern aspirin and penicillin, for example, just to take two common medications, people in ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, and ancient everywhere else too -- thousands of years before aspirin and penicillin, people were chewing on willow bark to deal with minor pain and inflammation, and were rubbing bread-mold on their wounds to prevent infection.
And how on earth did either of those practices start??! How did people learn they worked??! Was it just chance? Were there ancient experimenters who handed out different kinds of bark to chew to a bunch of people with headaches, and the fellow who got the willow bark felt better most quickly? Did someone run out of bandages, so she slapped an old piece of bread on that ugly-looking cut on her foot, and lo and behold, it healed up beautifully?
It's quite fascinating to imagine how these things were figured out, whether by chance or by experimentation, when one considers the vast array of possibilities. Maple bark, nothing. Willow bark, hey I feel better! And rotten meat, not so good. But moldy bread? Terrific!
So many ancient practices, developed over thousands of years purely on experience, before any knowledge of molecular chemistry or biology, but solely on the basis that something worked. It made a difference. Precisely how it made a difference, that may not have been known at a bio-chemical level, but it most definitely made a difference. And so these ancient practices became the norm.
I mention this because we have a beautiful example of it in this passage from the gospel of Matthew that we just heard. Yet another passage in which the poor old Pharisees, who were actually deeply faithful and far more generous of spirit than the gospels ever give them credit for -- but yet another passage in which the poor old Pharisees are portrayed as being overly rigid with a rule.
But what's the rule in this case? That people should wash their hands before they eat.
The Pharisees call it "the tradition of the elders", and they're annoyed because Jesus and his disciples aren't following this rule, but what's really kind of fascinating about it is that a practice that clearly developed as the result of experience -- people were less likely to get sick and die if they washed their hands before they ate -- has been given a religious meaning. It's become a religious ritual, an act of faith, an expression of faithfulness.
One must wash one's hands before eating, the Pharisees say, in order not to be "defiled" -- such a religious term. One prepares to receive God's gift of food by first "purifying" oneself, by first symbolically and literally washing one's hands.
It's actually kind of amazing to look at this "religious ritual" from our perspective all these millenia later, understanding what we do about germs and microbes, and to see how a practice that literally made sense on an experiential basis -- people obviously got sick more rarely if they washed the germs off their hands before they ate! -- was given a faith-oriented twist.
The Pharisees, and their elders, don't just wash their hands before eating because it makes sense -- they've turned it into a religious act of purification. At some point long before, people had learned by experience that what went into the mouth could in fact defile the body, could make them sick -- say, if they'd worked all morning fertilizing their fields. And so a ritual washing of the hands that keeps the body from being "defiled" arises. It's a religious act of purification before receiving God's gift of food, AND... truth is? It also just makes sense.
Which means it's a little amusing, if not also a little disconcerting, when Jesus pooh poohs the practice in our reading this morning. At least from our 21st century pandemic perspective.
Because "to eat with unwashed hands doesn't defile" as Jesus tells his disciples??! I mean, defile might be kind of a strong word, but the truth is, eating with unwashed hands is still maybe not exactly the best idea. Not precisely what one might wish to promote... So we might be pardoned for thinking maybe Jesus sort of unwittingly tossed the baby out with the bathwater on this one...
But what he's actually worked up about, of course, in this particular instance, isn't actually the specific rule itself. It's the Pharisees' unrelenting nitpicking rigidity with all their rules. Because by this point in the gospel stories, they've essentially been following Jesus and the disciples around literally LOOKING for things to take offence at. LOOKING for rules being broken and rituals being abandoned, just so that they can get annoyed. And Jesus is well and truly fed up with it.
So, the disciples not washing their hands before eating? It's just the latest thing the scribes and the Pharisees have found to complain about. "It's just not right. They're not following the tradition of the elders. It's just not right." It's like they're enjoying being so offended, just to see if they can provoke him.
And Jesus takes the bait. One hopes he quietly afterward pointed out to the disciples that washing their hands before eating IS actually quite a smart thing to do, but on the ground, in the moment, Jesus takes the bait. And he uses it to make a point.
And it's a good point. Maybe not technically correct on a literal biological level, but the point he's making actually has nothing to do with what's literal. It's couched in literal language of course -- what goes into the body can't defile, he says, because it just passes on through on its way to the sewer, which in the age of germ-knowledge we know isn't technically literally correct – so he's using literal language here...
...but his point is entirely symbolic. It's not what goes into a person that defiles the person, symbolically. It's what comes out of a person that defiles a person, symbolically.
And that, in fact, is completely true. And it's also, to be honest, completely obvious. Right? I mean, truly to heaven, the disciples may often be portrayed in the gospels as being a little thick-headed, a little slow to understand things, but even the disciples probably realize at some level without being told that what really makes a person "unrighteous", unpleasant to be around -- takes the shine off, as it were -- it isn't how technically 'unclean' they are... It's what they do.
It's what comes out of them. It's nastiness and dishonesty and malice and lying and cheating and stealing. The disciples may not be very clever but they must know perfectly well what makes someone unpleasant, unrighteous, unappealing. It's what that person DOES. It's how they behave.
So Jesus' point here really isn't that mind-blowing. The only thing that could be really even sort of mind-blowing, at least from the disciples' perspective -- in a culture with so many rules about how to maintain ritual cleanliness, appropriate purity in God's eyes -- the only thing that could be really even sort of mind-blowing to them might be the notion that God doesn't actually care about all those rituals.
That might be a little foundation-shaking -- except that since the whole episode was precipitated by the disciples' not washing their hands before eating, they're obviously already not too worried about God caring about all those rituals.
So -- not so mind-blowing. It's pretty much something the disciples probably already knew and it's not even particularly original -- God says the very same thing over and over throughout the older testament. Don't bug me with your ritual righteousness – just actually BE righteous.
So Jesus is really just saying it again for the disciples, for us. As a sort of reminder -- though with the quiet caveat to them later, one hopes, that actually a little handwashing before meals is a good idea. Otherwise, not such a major message.
But here's the thing. Hidden in here, inside this story that's really about how "cleanness" and "righteousness" isn't about washing your hands, it's about how you behave –
Is another little red flag for the Pharisees and for us. About making an idol out of rules. Which is often in these New Testament stories portrayed as kind of a Pharisee "issue" as it were. Where the rules themselves become so deified that if a donkey falls into a pit on the Sabbath, say, it starts to seem not only rational but FAITHFUL to just leave the poor thing there rather than "working" on the Sabbath.
Which, if we would never be so foolish, I don't actually think the Pharisees would have been either. But it still is easy – it was for them and it is for us – to make an idol out of the rules. We have all these rules we're trying to follow to keep ourselves and others as safe as possible in this pandemic, and as people of faith – like others – we're thinking about them and speaking about them as manifesting care and concern and love for our neighbours –
But at the same time, if we see someone BREAKING this rule that we talk about as being all about love our neighbour? Suddenly our love of neighbour can go right out the window. Right there, in the middle of the Sobey's.
It's really easy to make an idol out of the rule. And to forget that... if the point is actually supposed to be about caring about each other? It's worth a few deep breaths and trying to be civil. To the person squishing all the pears or standing too close to us. In the middle of the Sobey's.
But there's another issue with making an idol out of the rules. And it happens when we deify them so much, grant them so much importance, that in our rising anxiety we start needing them detailed in every permutation and combination imaginable – as though we can't depend on our own common sense to extrapolate. We make these rules to give ourselves some sense of control, and then we deify them so much that THEY get the control and we're panicking if they don't cover every base we can imagine.
There's a reason God commanded the Israelites not to make idols and worship them. And it's not just that God wasn't interested in sharing centre stage. Good rules enable us to live well together, but they're meant to be instruments that bolster our capacity and our common sense. They're not meant to be so diminishing that we need more and more of them because we've ceased trusting ourselves to be able to manage in every single possible situation we can imagine.
They're not meant to be so diminishing that we need more and more of THEM to trust, or else we're bowed down by anxiety. So there's a word in this passage for us as we look ahead to September. We're just as challenged as the Pharisees are by this passage not to make idols out of rules... that are patently good rules! Washing your hands before you eat? A patently good rule now as then, even if none of those involved back then knew why, at a biological level. Some combination of distancing and a mask and relentless hand sanitizing? A patently good rule that protects US and also protects those around us.
But we're reminded by this passage that rules are not themselves the point. They're not themselves righteous, to be raised up as idols, and the more the better and smite the defiant. They're just a few straightforward tools to make it possible -- thanks to our own capacity and common sense in following them in whatever situation -- to live well together. Manifesting love for our neighbours and for ourselves.
And I know that may not feel trustable in others. I know a lot of us are fearful it can't be trustable in our kids, especially if they're little, but to be honest in my experience little kids are actually pretty good rule followers. Some of them are even tiny tiny fascists – as anyone who's ever had a kid inflict a daycare rule or school rule on the homefront can testify.
But we do trust one another, and with good reason, to stop at red lights. It's not crazy to trust one another to want to get this right. Ultimately though, the full measure of the point of the rules for ourselves is achieved if WE get this right. With the few straightforward rules as tools, we have the common sense and capacity to protect ourselves and those around us.
My yoke is easy and my burden is light, is how Jesus put it. It's not crazy to let ourselves trust that. To know that a few straightforward rules do manifest loving ourselves and our neighbours, and to not get weighed down with the fury and anxiety of idolatry. Like washing your hands before eating, and the Pharisees called it good faithfulness -- it's also good science. Amen.