Saturday, December 06, 2003

Who's Dirty?

The Wednesday of the Second Week in Advent. Matthew 15:1-20

This conflict is not only about ceremonial cleanliness, but about two visions of being Israel: that of Jesus, and that of the Pharisees. The question of clean and unclean was one of who was fit to stand in the presence of God with God’s people. There are insiders and there are outsiders; us and them. This was particularly important since these Jewish folk lived in a Palestine absolutely infested with Gentiles. Walking down the street could make an otherwise perfectly religious, Godly Jew unclean without even realizing it. This is why elaborate hand-washing exercises developed, not for hygienic, but religious reasons. In skipping over them, Jesus and His disciples once again disregarded the painful lesson Israel learned through the Exile: the Jews could only be God’s people and carry his favor insofar as they maintained separation from the other people on the earth.

Jesus insisted on a very different understanding. Israel would not be different from the other nations because of ceremony and what they would or wouldn’t eat or touch, but by the way they responded to God. They would live pure, holy, loving lives, and take care of the people around them. They would in this way live under the reign of God, even though God’s presence seemed distant.

The rules were meant to protect and empower the peoples’ relationship with God, but instead they kept them from it. The temple system in Jesus’ day was burdensome to the poor, and those who wanted to turn to God were hindered by the sacrificial requirements. This is why John the Baptizer and his baptism of repentance was so popular, and why Jesus smashed the tables of the sellers in the temple—they were an equivalent of our loan sharks. Jesus uses an odd custom as an example of this: some people use those rules to weasel out of what God considers their clear responsibility to love.

For the Pharisees, being faithful to God had everything to do with how things looked: that one did all the right things and appeared religious and pure. This is why they so often criticized Jesus as a "drunk": he spent time with drunks, prostitutes and tax collectors. What does this mean to us? It means that we cannot use rules about what’s religious or irreligious to weasel out of our clear responsibility to love.

Whenever we choose to step away from someone because we don’t understand them, or their lifestyles are extravagantly sinful, or we’re concerned that others will think we’re like them or approve of their behavior and worldviews, we let our hearts wander from God. We can only speak the prophetic word if first we choose to love. Creative love is in itself a prophetic act.

Who are the people in our lives we avoid? Who irritates us? Those are the folks for whom we must ask God to give us a vision. Understanding the inconsistencies and weakness of our own love, we ask for a glimpse of His deep tenderness toward our enemies. Armed with this, we are called to speak good things, to voice God’s blessing into their lives. Through such an empowerment of the Holy Spirit, those good things will come to pass. We needn’t worry, then, about who is clean or not, because we will ourselves will be agents of God’s cleansing.

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