Kingís Acre and Mostyn Road
31 August 2003
Sheepís Eyeballs, anyone?
I wonder exactly what we make, today, of Jesusí words in our Gospel reading.† Itís not just so easy to understand what he was getting at, since we donít actually have this thing of being unclean, not the way the Jews did in his day.† They had all sorts of rituals which hedged them round, and if they failed to keep them accurately, they were considered ďuncleanĒ.
Yet Iím sure we can learn something from the story today.
Letís go back to the roots of what Jesus was talking about.† Why would he get into trouble for not washing his hands properly?
Well, it all started back in the days when Israel was a collection of nomadic tribes in the desert.† They needed all sorts of rules to keep themselves healthy, and prevent disease Ė and, of course, to help them keep on being Godís people.† Some of the rules were purely for hygiene Ė latrines should be dug well outside the camp, and you should take a trowel with you to cover up after yourself.† It makes sense not to eat pork or shellfish in that sort of climate, when refrigerators havenít yet been invented!† In an age before antibiotics and disinfectant, skin diseases, mould and mildew need to be treated† swiftly and ruthlessly if they are not to spread uncontrollably.† Even the rules about sex make sense if you look at them in the context of a small group of tribes that needed to increase their numbers Ė as given, the rules maximise potential fertility and minimise the chance of disease spreading.
You can read most of the rules in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; the latter seems to have been planned for a later time, when the people of Israel were settled in their land.† But they do make a great deal of sense when you read them in the context of their time and place, and, quite honestly, whether you consider them to have been directly dictated by God, or whether you believe they were more the work of inspired men and women, I think the only response I find it possible to make is, ďIsnít God clever!Ē
The rules also help people live together in an orderly society Ė no stealing, no murder, no lying, and so on.† And rules to help you worship God.† Once the Israelites were settled down, it was horrendously tempting to worship the local gods, especially as they were learning how to be farmers from their Canaanite neighbours, and worshipping Baal, the local god, was all part and parcel of a Canaanite farmerís life.† So all sorts of festivals were set up, from Passover, through Pentecost, and so on.† They were gradually modified and added to as years went by, but, by and large, the pattern of how you behaved, how you worshipped, and how you lived your life if you were Jewish became fixed.
Of course, the God the Jews worshipped was very different from Baal and the other local gods, in that Baal and them didnít care much what you did outside of worship, as long as the proper rituals were observed within it.† But being Godís person demanded, as indeed it still does, the whole of your life; not just what went on in the worship service, but what goes on outside of it, too.† There is still no such thing as a person who is only a Christian on Sundays!
And, of course, this is where the trouble started.† Because itís all too easy, as Iím sure you know, to allow the rituals and rules to become a substitute for the real thing.† And then you get things just exactly backwards: you think that if you eat this diet, observe that festival, wash your hands on these occasions, you will be right with God.† Whereas, of course, it should be the other way round: you eat this diet, observe that festival, whatever, because you are right with God.
So when the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law spoke to Jesus about this, they were getting confused.† They saw Jesus and his disciples not washing their hands in the ritual manner and thought this meant they were disrespecting the Jewish Law.† But Jesus said itís not the outward things that matter, nor what you put into your body Ė after all, much of that goes straight through without becoming part of you Ė but the inward things.† Itís what comes out of a person that can be defiling, and Jesus gives us a great list: ďevil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.Ē
So Whatís the Problem?
Well, we know all about most of those nasty things, of course, but in some ways, the rest of the reading seems almost irrelevant to us.† After all, we donít observe the Jewish Law; we donít make the mistake of thinking that our relationship with God depends on whether we observe the rituals correctly.† Do we?
Sometimes, of course, we do.† We think that because we go to Church, or read our Bibles every day, or read some kind of daily office, or whatever, then we are in a right relationship with God.† The trouble is, we get confused Ė we know in our heads that itís the other way round, but sometimes what we think we believe and what we really do believe are two very different things!
Then, of course, there is all the cultural baggage we bring with us.† The missionaries who took the Good News to Africa and similar places, the Pacific islands, for instance, bought an awful lot of their own prejudices with them, particularly in regards to dress codes, for instance.† They thought that how they dressed was the norm, and† how some of the people they met in parts of Africa dressed was shocking and horrible!† So they insisted that Christian people dress like respectable middle-class people in Victorian England.† And the only way they could envisage worshipping God was in the way they were used to at home, so they imposed British patterns of worship and traditional hymns.† They couldnít distinguish between what was important for a person who genuinely wanted to follow Jesus, and what was a cultural tradition that could have legitimately been discarded.
We tend to believe we donít fall into that sort of trap any more, and perhaps we donít.† We know that if we were invited to a banquet in Saudi Arabia, we might be asked to eat sheepís eyeballs, and we are really quite used to the fact that snails and frogsí legs tend to feature on the menus of good restaurants across the Channel.† We wonít make the mistakes that the first colonists in north America made, who starved in the midst of plenty because they did not, or could not, realise that what the local people were showing them so carefully was not only food, but the sort of crop that grew and thrived in the local soil, in the way that the wheat, barley and oats they had imported from England with such difficulty did not.
Nevertheless, though, we do all bring cultural baggage with us to our Christianity.† Itís not necessarily a bad thing, of course.† Our heritage is part of who we are, and we need to acknowledge that.† Where we go wrong is when we try to impose it on other people.†
Itís not always easy to distinguish between what is cultural baggage, and what is important to us in helping us to be Godís person.† Thatís where the Pharisees went wrong, of course, but we are apt to do the same thing.† Like shopping on Sundays, for instance Ė in Paris, the small shops are all open for a few hours for you to buy your bread, which does not keep, and any necessary groceries, and nobody sees anything wrong in it.† Similarly, some of you may be planning to call in at Tescoís on your way home, while others of you wouldnít dream of it.† Thatís okay; what isnít, of course, is when you try to impose what you think is right on other people.
Jonathan Edwards, the triple jumper who retired at the World Athletic Championships last week, never used to compete on Sundays in the early part of his career.† I donít know what changed his mind, but it is notable that his success, and world records, only came after he did discover that competing on Sundays didnít necessarily harm his relationship with God.
Then thereís the matter of what you do or donít wear to Church.† My father Ė and Robertís too, for that matter Ė would always put on a suit to go.† My mother wouldnít wear trousers.† Lots of the Black-led churches still expect women to wear hats.† I always try to look smart when Iím preaching, although I donít normally dress up on an ordinary Sunday if Iím not.†
I happen to like a little symbolism in my worship; other people like a very great deal, and others think that worshipping using any sense other than the intellect is totally unnecessary.† When I grew up, it was traditional to bow your head in the Creed when you said ďI believe in the Lord Jesus ChristĒ Ė I donít do that any more, but I notice that my father not only does, he bows whenever he says or sings the name ďJesusĒ during a worship service.† And I noticed last Sunday, when I went to church with them, that he knelt all the way through the service, despite his hip being officially ďon its last legsĒ.† I, wimpy, with a sore knee from skating, sat most of the time!
I was brought up to observe Lent and Advent fairly strictly, but we were not, and are not, Sabbatarian.†† I found it very strange when I first met Christians who kept Sundays very strictly, but almost ignored Lent and Advent.† And while some Christians feel the need to receive Holy Communion every single day, others take it only once a quarter, after a great deal of personal preparation.†
Just a word here about the Sacraments: sometimes we might feel that taking the Sacrament is also cultural baggage, mere outward formality that doesnít do anything.† And, okay, yes, sometimes that is so.† But, unlike ceremonial washing, for the Jews, or Sabbath observance, or whatever, sacraments are said to be ďAn outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual graceĒ.† In other words, theyíre a picture of something God does for us.† So even if it often feels as though nothing happens, in fact, we believe, God does do something, come close to us in a new way, whatever.
But things like how often we attend the Sacrament donít really matter.† Itís your relationship with God that matters, and how that relationship spills over into your relationship with others.† And, of course, the Sacraments can help that.† Jesus knew that it didnít matter if the disciples hadnít washed their hands exactly as prescribed; what mattered was what was inside them.† St Paul puts it rather well, I think, in his letter to the Galatians, where he contrasts ďthose who live by the SpiritĒ with those who donít: ďNow the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry,† sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.Ē† Thatís more or less what Jesus said, in our first reading.† But then St Paul goes on: ďBy contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness,† and self-control. There is no law against such things.Ē
So, basically, if we belong to Jesus, if we have the Holy Spirit, then we will be more likely to display all those nice qualities than all those nasty qualities.† And if we do, then we are truly clean inside.† And that has to be more important than ceremonial washing, or any other sort of religious observance which is basically just cultural baggage.† Letís commit ourselves once again to being Godís person, to allowing the Holy Spirit to fill us, to allowing ourselves to be made clean inside.†