Sermon for 30.08.15
I wish I had had the opportunity to discuss today’s gospel with my Grandma Archibald, but she died before I was old enough to pose smart-aleck questions. My maternal grandmother had a pathological fear of germs. She was born only ten years or so after Joseph Lister started to popularize sanitation as a way of avoiding infection, and she certainly signed up to his theories. But she was also a devout Methodist, and I really wonder what she made of Jesus and his disciples not washing their hands before they ate. They certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to sit down at her table.
But of course the point of the gospel story is about ritual washing rather than simple cleanliness. When I was taking part in Bible study in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago, the Old Testament lecturer took us through some Hebrew texts in Leviticus that went into microscopic detail about the right way to prepare for service at the altar in the Temple. Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his two sons were anointed as priests, but when Aaron’s sons offered incense that hadn’t been specifically requested, the Lord consumed them with fire. A pretty drastic punishment for a ritual mistake!
Our lecturer said that the point of this story was that the Temple was a place of incredible power and that you had to do things just right if you didn’t want to unleash that power upon yourself. Many of the Jewish priests and scribes believed that the Temple had been destroyed in the sixth century BC and the people taken into exile because they had been careless about the rituals. So when Leviticus was written they didn’t want to run the risk of any future disasters. The lecturer drew a parallel with a nuclear power station, where I am sure the health and safety drills would be even more precise and pernickety than the ritual cleanliness laws in the Hebrew scriptures. Getting the smallest detail wrong could be a life-or-death situation.
You may remember that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the reason the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side was that if they touched a corpse – and the man who had been robbed and beaten had been left for dead – they wouldn’t be able to do their duty in the Temple. They would have been ritually defiled. They were SSM priests, like Mark, who had normal homes and jobs and travelled up to Jerusalem on a rota to make sacrifices for the benefit of the people. To their mind, that was the most important thing they could do, far more significant than tidying up a dead man’s body.
These people lived in a world that took God’s power and God’s requirements with the utmost seriousness. Disasters had happened before, like the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, and the desecration in the second century BC when a statue of Zeus was set up in the Temple. They didn’t want to risk bringing down God’s destructive power once again. So they were extremely careful to follow the letter of the Law.
But here comes this troublesome rabbi Jesus, playing with fire. He tells people that the ritual rules don’t matter, at least not in the way they think. And that is radical in several ways. Because the rules worked as walls to keep people out. Obviously they kept the Gentiles out – non-Jews wouldn’t be ritually clean in any circumstances. But they also discriminated against the poor. By Jesus’ day, the rules were so complicated that an uneducated manual labourer couldn’t possibly hope to keep them. They didn’t have the time or the resources to follow all the rituals. The very jobs they did would have put them beyond the pale. Fishermen couldn’t help but gather non-kosher creatures in their fishing nets. Shepherds couldn’t avoid touching dead animals and animal excrement, both of which would render them unclean. Butchers and tanners couldn’t be ritually clean either.
I wonder if you see any modern parallels? Make it difficult or impossible for the poor to meet society’s standard of behaviour, and then blame them for failing to do so. The gap then widens between the privileged, who congratulate themselves on living according to the Law, and the under-privileged, who suffer both from disadvantage and also from the stigma of being poor and unclean. And note that the righteous ones depend on the unclean work of the poor to keep them well-fed and comfortable.
Well, Jesus is angered by this attitude and he metaphorically overturns the tables when he hears the privileged blame the poor. And he does it not by disowning the religion of the Hebrew scriptures but by criticising it from within. He calls the scribes hypocrites and he quotes Isaiah: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” It is not the Law of Moses, but the oral commentary on it in the tradition, that he is critiquing.
So what does God require of us? Not a sort of fearful tiptoeing around a nuclear reactor, terrified that we will set a match to his wrath. God requires cleanness of heart, what James describes as caring for orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping oneself unstained by the world. Or what the prophet Micah says: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
This is something that anyone can do. You don’t have to be a well-educated and prosperous Jewish scholar with time on your hands and plenty of household servants. You can be a shepherd, a fisherman, a carpenter; you can be a woman or a child or a person with a contagious disease; you can even be a Gentile, someone born outside the Law altogether. In these words Jesus paved the way for a truly inclusive community that would be judged by the way it serves God in other people, and not by the human doctrines that it proclaims or the human rules that it keeps.
What would Jesus say to British Christians today? I’m guessing he wouldn’t be impressed by all our debates about gender and sexuality and who is ritually eligible to be a Reader or a priest or a bishop. But I think he would look in horror at the photographs of children weeping from the effects of tear gas at the fenced-off borders of Europe. I can imagine his reply to the cabinet minister who says letting more refugees into the UK might threaten our standard of living. He would have something to say to the rich who blame welfare recipients for the state of the economy while protecting their own tax breaks.
And I’ll stick my neck out here and say that I believe he would turn over the tables in the forthcoming Parliamentary debate about assisted dying, as if the worth of our lives depends on our being of sound mind, physically healthy and independent. Those who have dementia or complex care needs, those who struggle with mental health problems or feel they have lived beyond their usefulness, are made in the image of God just as much as the healthy and strong. In fact, they are more valuable in God’s eyes, according to Jesus, than the successful people who live comfortable lives of personal autonomy. They will be first in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus calls them the blessed ones in the Beatitudes.
It is what being doers of the word, and not just hearers of it, that matters. We had a wonderful example in recent days of the active courage of several people who wrestled a Kalashnikov-wielding terrorist into submission, using only their sense of urgency and their bare hands – and of course a very British necktie!
But active doing of the word isn’t always so dramatic. Last week we held the funeral of our former churchwarden, Malcolm Craddock, who was passionately committed to our work with the homeless and with vulnerable young people. Even though he knew he was terminally ill, he didn’t ease up one whit on his concern to fund and publicise and support these causes. We will continue to honour his commitment in his memory.
We may not all have the opportunity to put an arm-lock on a terrorist, but all of us can be active in the service of justice and mercy. We can turn our attention away from ritual purity, rule-keeping and self-righteousness. We can stop blaming the poor for being disadvantaged or the desperate for trying to better themselves. We can see the image of God in those who are terminally sick or deeply depressed, rather than suggest they might want to end their lives. And we can use whatever resources we are lucky enough to have, whether they are of time, education or money, to be doers of the word and not just hearers.