bible blog 1193

This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:

DESPERATE NEED IN PHILIPPINES

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Philippine

Matthew 15:1-20

New English Translation (NET)

15 Then Pharisees and experts in the law came from Jerusalem to Jesus and said, “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If someone tells his father or mother, “Whatever help you would have received from me is given to God,” he does not need to honour his father.’ You have nullified the word of God on account of your tradition. Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said,

This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me,
and they worship me in vain,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
ready for ritual

ready for ritual

True Defilement

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came to him and said, “Do you know that when the Pharisees heard this saying they were offended?” 13 And he replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father did not plant will be uprooted. 14 Leave them! They are blind guides. If someone who is blind leads another who is blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16 Jesus said, “Even after all this, are you still so foolish? 17 Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and then passes out into the sewer? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.”

Jesus often attacked customs that were part of the religion of his contemporaries. He was just impatient with the kind of pious clutter that can get in the way of obedience to God. It’s important to see that Jesus was upholding the Torah as a direct expression of God’s goodness, rather than undermining it. Other Rabbis around the time of Jesus argued for a similar simplicity. When an impertinent questioner asked Rabbi Hillel to sum up the Torah while “standing on one leg”(that is, briefly), he said, “Whatever displeases you, do not do it to to others”- a negative version of the golden rule. For Jesus the Law is always God’s word to human beings; never a possession which can be used to protect human beings from God’s demands. Even that statement is not quite accurate. We also have to say that in obeying God’s word Jesus never forgot the God, the Father, whose word it is. This passionate obedience is a very Jewish quality.

God wants us to honour our parents, and that means caring for them in their old age. No religious fiddle-faddle should get in the way of one’s duty. I write as one who used religious activity as a way of avoiding my duty to my mother. In the UK we have seen how leaving the care of elderly parents to poorly paid employees can lead to neglect and cruelty. The idea that the elderly are disposable is profoundly shocking to many other cultures. Jesus freed up the command of God so that it would be obeyed. In this teaching,he identified himself with the prophets who had also made a critical distinction between religious behaviour and true obedience to God.

Jesus’ teaching about hand-washing should not be read to uninformed children! It refers only to ritual washing. Of course notions of social  delicacy motivated cleanliness, then as now, but there was no understanding of infection through bacteria. The Pharisees measured a teacher’s moral worth by his adherence to such ritual customs which they saw as accepting the Torah obligations of priests. In a way that Protestant Christians should understand, they were teaching the “priesthood of all believers.” Ordinary Jews should show their priesthood by observing ritual as well as moral requirements of Torah. Jesus’ contrast between what goes into and what comes out of, a person, shows his impatience with anything that distracts us from the need to clean our dirty hearts from which come words and actions that damage others. Just when we might congratulate Jesus on being modern enough to see that religious ritual is unimportant, he turns out to be old fashioned enough to talk about moral defilement. A tremendous essay by H. G. Wells on Jesus contains these words:  

“He was like some terrible moral huntsman digging mankind out of the snug burrows in which they had lived hitherto. In the white blaze of this kingdom of his there was to be no property, no privilege, no pride and precedence; no motive indeed and no reward but love. Is it any wonder that men were dazzled and blinded and cried out against him? Even his disciples cried out when he would not spare them the light.” 

digging out the snug burrows

digging out the snug burrows

This comment is a genuine response to the Jesus revealed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Other books of the New Testament concentrate more on Jesus relationship with God and the need for faith in him as Son of God. Passages like the above remind us that the form of Jesus’ divine nature should never be allowed to obscure its content, which is the sober and loving obedience urged here.

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