The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Religious Differences. That’s what is at the core of the heated discussion in this Gospel. The conflict revolves around an occasion when Jesus was teaching and healing in the region of Galilee. Some of the Pharisees from Jerusalem came to check him out, to see what he was up to, probably curious about how many people were following him.
While they are observing all this, they notice that his disciples have begun to eat lunch without first performing the required ritual washing of their hands. So, they challenge Jesus about this, and he rebukes them for their hypocrisy. To appreciate his position, we need to visit a little history.
Modern scholars suggest that the Pharisees were a reform movement within the first century Jewish community. Their aim was to help the common folk reclaim their Jewish identity by being more observant of the law. Remember that the Jews were a religious minority living in an occupied territory of the Roman Empire.
The Pharisees believed that the moral law was important but that keeping strict observances was the best way to keep their faith vibrant. So, while they are an easy target for criticism because of their tunnel vision and obstinate adherence to hundreds of laws that became an obsession, they were not bad people.
They kept very high standards and they wanted people to be proud of their Jewish identity. All of that would not have been so bad if it had helped bring people into communion with one another, but the reality was that their position excluded people and kept them out. And most of their concerns were around eating and food—a huge part of Middle Eastern culture.
Torah dictated what you could and could not eat, with whom you could or could not eat, what kind of dishes and pots you used and when and in what manner you had to perform ritual washing first. For the Pharisees, the behavior of the disciples did not just demonstrate bad manners. It showed bad faith. And why didn’t Jesus, an educated Jew, insist that these rogue friends of his conform to Jewish Law in this regard?
I suspect it wasn’t just the twelve who neglected to wash their hands but hundreds of other followers who were in the crowd, ordinary people who could not afford to keep all the dietary and ritual regulations and were hungry. Jesus, of course, constantly violated religious laws in favor of ministering to those in need. He healed on the Sabbath, touched lepers and a dead child, is touched by a woman who suffered from hemorrhages for years, and ate dinner with notorious sinners. All beyond taboo.
Jesus responds by quoting one of their most prominent Old Testament Prophets: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'
Jesus wants the Pharisees to get out of their head and get into their heart. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” God sees what is in our hearts not in our pedigrees or our wallets or even our piety.
The goal of the Pharisees to affirm and reinforce their identity should not be lost on us. This week we’ve seen the cruelty, aggression, and fanaticism of the Taliban. They are Islamic extremists who in their so-called religious piety murder their sister and brother Muslims who won’t accept their radical practices. They oppress and slaughter in the name of Allah, their god.
There has been and always will be fanatic and fringe religious sects that mirror the purity laws of the first century and become the boundary-defining code, the obstacle building instrument to divide, separate, and exclude. Jesus would have none of it in first century Galilee nor will he in our time.
Religious differences. The divisions and exclusion and abuse created by religious people are a sad commentary on where and how religion fails to draw all people closer to one another and to the Creator and Lover of Souls.
These divisions have divided churches, families, and longtime friendships and still do. That is not the way God wants us to live.
The takeaway today is that Jesus goes to the heart of the law: love one another as God has loved you. His challenge is in his asking if there is genuineness in what we say and what we do? In what we believe and how we live into that belief? Does what we show on the outside truly reflect what is on the inside?
I think that’s where we may have a problem. I think that we fear that because God sees what is in our hearts, God will reject us because God can see what most people can’t—what is hidden deep inside our hearts. We can sometimes be hard on ourselves, forgetting that God sees us very differently from how we see ourselves.
We Christians have a lot of difficult doctrines we’re asked to believe but I’ve always preached that one of the hardest things we’re asked to believe is that God loves us unconditionally with all our short comings, lack of faith, failures, peccadillos, and warts. God just wants us to be who God created us to be and God knows that’ll be enough. We just need to cut ourselves some slack and let God be God. And love us.