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Proper 21, Year B

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 - link to NRSV text
James 4:7-12 (13-5:6) - link to NRSV text
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48 - link to NRSV text

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
-- Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Proper 21

I blogged a little last week about how our romantic views of childhood can sometimes distort our reading of biblical texts involving children. I don't feel the need to repeat any of that this week, though, for a fairly simple reason:

There is no mention of children in this Sunday's gospel.

The word used here for the people whom we are called to serve such that we provide no cause for their stumbling is mikros, as in our prefix "micro-." It means "small" or "short" with respect to quantities and distances. When it's used of people in Greek literature of the period that produced the New Testament, my quick survey suggests that it's used far more often to name adults of lowly status -- widows and orphans, those in poverty and those whose status in other ways shuts them out from what they need to get by and from the communities that might otherwise receive them -- than it is for children. It is true now as it was then that children are often among the very least of "the least of these"; when food, clean water, and medicine are in short supply, they're usually the first to die, and when abandoned or orphaned, they have little hope of surviving. But the "little ones" in this Sunday's gospel are not so much like the well-scrubbed cherubs in the Sunday School classrooms of middle-class parishes as they are like the mentally ill homeless woman we drive past on the way to brunch afterward.

So why, then, do we read the passage as if it were about children (as I have to admit I did until I took a closer look at it today)? Indeed, since the National Association of Episcopal Schools has designated the first Sunday in October as "Episcopal Schools Sunday," I wouldn't be at all surprised if there weren't even more sermons than usual this Sunday suggesting that the "little ones" here are students in private Episcopal schools -- some of which are quite diverse and do offer scholarships to poor and at-risk students, but many of which include few or none of the "lowly ones" of whom Jesus speaks.

I wonder whether some of it might have to do with fear. In my experience, few adults experience children of any perceived race or status as threatening, while that same adorable child might a few years later be treated with suspicion in the same crowd ("He dresses like a gang member! Is he from around here?"). Photographs of children in need of food or medicine elicit pity, while photographs of adults in similar circumstances sometimes strike a little too close to home, reminding us adults that, contrary to what our consumerist culture tells us, no amount of money or goods, education or status can shield us entirely from danger and disease, and in my pastoral experience, those who have most often suffer most from the creeping anxiety that it won't be enough to protect them from suffering.

Some of us respond by trying to accumulate increasing wealth, power, and status in hopes that it will insulate us from what we fear. Personally, I think that approach doesn't work, and that's part of why so many adults are so uncomfortable an adult who is very sick or very poor. I think envy and rivalry -- the kinds of behaviors against which Jesus speaks in the gospel as he refuses to condemn those who heal and restore people to community without seeking authorization from authorities first; and for which Moses chides Joshua in this week's reading from Numbers -- come from a similar place in our hearts. Too many of us spend too much time and energy in a constant state of anxiety because we imagine "the good life" to be a very narrow band of experiences -- the good job, the good house, the good school, the good retirement plan, the good doctors, and the good lifestyle that will guarantee that we'll live a good, long time, free of pain and worry, secure that we've finally accumulated enough -- and that we deserve it all.

Anyone who's tried this long enough and who's honest enough will, I think, admit that this approach doesn't work at all. No amount of power over others we can seize will make as invulnerable as we like to pretend we are. We are creatures, after all, not the Creator, and I suspect on some level we always know this; otherwise we wouldn't find it so painful to be reminded of the fact by our encounters with "lowly ones" at the margins.

Personally, I think St. Benedict's prescription, odd as it sounds at first in today's culture, is an effective one for our condition: "remember that you will die." In essence, that's a distillation of what our extended reading from James for this Sunday is trying to do. James reminds us of how futile and joyless it is to try to convince ourselves we'll live forever by accumulating possessions and resources that are just as transitory. The letter reminds us that no amount of scrambling for status will make us as powerful as part of us wants to be -- powerful enough to be invulnerable -- and no amount of condemning our neighbors' faults will really convince us of how God loves us, because that isn't how God loves us.

God loves us in our vulnerability. Indeed, God made us vulnerable. After all, we are made in God's image, and if we want to know what God's image revealed as fully as we can receive it in the life of a human being looks like -- if we want to see what full, authentic humanity in God's image looks like -- we can look to Jesus. We look to Jesus, whose suffering with the "lowly ones" who suffer started long before his being sentenced to a slave's death on a Roman cross. Jesus journeyed with the "lowly ones" throughout his ministry. By this point in the gospel, his face is set toward Jerusalem, and he knows what he faces there. Having accepted that, he doesn't need to look away from others' pain; indeed, he identifies with all in need of the most basic, immediate necessities -- a cup of water, a day's bread, a moment of compassion.

Jesus knows something that our culture finds it extremely hard to understand: God's power -- the power that speaks light from darkness and life from dust, the power that sustains the universe -- is not shown in shutting out those who are less powerful. The richness of God's blessing -- the only riches that can truly bring joy or peace -- is not enhanced by hoarding God's gifts. And Jesus' gift of what John calls "eternal life" -- the kind of lasting joy, peace, and love for which we were made and the universe aches -- doesn't come from vain and futile chasing after immortality. Instead, Jesus' words and example teach us, God's power is experienced in empowering the "lowly ones"; God's rich blessings are found in seeking justice for the poor. And the life of the world comes through Christ crucified; we will see God not by averting our eyes from the suffering "lowly ones" with whom he identified, but by looking with compassion in their eyes until we, like Jesus, can see the world through their eyes -- until we, like Jesus, identify with all who share our humanity, the image of God in us.

Thanks be to God!

September 29, 2006 in James, Justice, Mark, Moses, Numbers, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, The Cross, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proper 20, Year B

Sorry this week's entry is so late; I was encountering technical difficulties that now (thankfully!) are resolved.

Wisdom 1:16-2:1(6-11), 12-22 - link to NRSV text
James 3:16-4:6 - link to NRSV text
Mark 9:30-37 - link to NRSV text

What was Jesus talking about when he said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me"? I've heard many a sermon linking this to Mark 10:13-16, in which Jesus says, "it is to such [children] that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it," and speculating about what qualities children have that Jesus is saying should appear among his followers: a child's innocence? playfulness? openness?

The problem with most of these readings is that they depend on a romantic view of childhood that's key in most movies by Stephen Spielberg but foreign to the cultures that produced the New Testament. Such readings overlook something that would occur immediately in the minds of adults in the first-century Mediterranean world, especially parents:

Fewer than half of children born would make it to adulthood.

In other words, the most salient characteristic of children for most first-century readers of this text would be that children are extraordinarily vulnerable -- perhaps the most most vulnerable in their society. First-century parents loved their children as all parents do, and children were also celebrated as the closest thing to social security in the ancient world -- if you were lucky enough to make it to old age, your children would most likely be your only means of support once you could no longer work. But children were generally the first to fall when disease or famine struck, or if the family for whatever reason became refugees, and a great many did. Children were vulnerable not only physically, but due to their low status in family and society. Even slaves could own property, for example, but children could not; they weren't considered people for the purpose of inheritance.

In other words, Jesus said that God's kingdom belongs to those to whom the world said nothing belonged.

What does this say to us? How might we live differently if we believed this to be true?

For a start, we might come to the conclusion toward which our reading for this Sunday from the book of Wisdom points (especially the part our lectionary rather unhelpfully brackets as optional). The world contends that the good things of the world are OURS to enjoy, that we can and should take what we can get for ourselves and our families, as "what is weak proves itself to be useless." The world contends that those whose "manner of life is unlike that of others" (Wisdom 2:15) can and should be tested with insult and torture -- especially if that manner of life is a challenge to us respectable and deserving people.

The world presents all of this as wisdom. Our scriptures present it as "unsound reason," spiritual blindness, a disaster. And the letter of James comes down even harder on Christians who act out worldly scrambling to grasp at resources, power, and status and to honor most those who have most within the church.

We get caught up in all of those zero-sum games, forgetting that, to paraphrase Lilly Tomlin, winning the rat race just makes me a prizewinning rat. I want to be more than that. More importantly, God made me for more than that. And so God offers you and me -- all of us -- a chance to be more than that, to opt out of the rat race, to respond to the world's contention that we are what we can say is OURS by instead looking at the world at every opportunity with the eyes of someone who, in the world's way of doing things, has been disqualified from owning and having.

We stop saying, "they're taking MY church away from me," and we recognize that it's God's church, and God has made room for those God has invited.

We ask God to deliver us from the presumption that it is in any way up to us to decide who deserves what we all want for ourselves and our children, and to give us the vision and courage to receive every child -- not just those we know or like, and not just those with whom we share a culture, a language, a social class, or a legal or genetic family link -- as a full, beloved member of God's family, as deserving as we are to share the good things that are God's gifts, not our property.

And we evaluate every system, every power, every choice based on what it will do for the most vulnerable, not those closest to us. In God's economy, that's the key index.

Thanks be to God!

September 23, 2006 in James, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Wisdom (the aprocryphal book), Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proper 19, Year B

Isaiah 50:4-9 - link to NRSV text
James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-18 - link to NRSV text
Mark 8:27-38 - link to NRSV text

Having taught New Testament and early Christian history in a number of places, I can't tell you how many times I've read the word "Christ" used as little more than a surname -- as if Jesus' parents were "Joseph and Mary Christ." I can even recall one time when a student wrote of "Mr. Christ." In Christianity's first century a lot of Romans were equally confused by what they heard of this person whom some called "Christ"; for example, when the Roman historian Suetonius wrote of Christians, he seems to have misheard the Greek word christos ("Christ") as the common slave name Chrestos, and so he reports that the troublesome "tribe" of Chrestianoi began at the instigation of this slave named Chrestos, who was crucified at Pontius Pilate's orders.

It's not hard to understand his confusion. Christos is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew messiah, or "anointed," and "anointed" doesn't mean much beyond someone having a damp head unless you make clear by whom this person was anointed and for what. In Greek and Roman cultures, the term didn't have any particular traditional resonance, and so saying that someone or another was "anointed" was unlikely in itself to excite anyone.

The term did mean something -- a great deal in some cases -- to many Jews. However, the picture painted from many pulpits of all Judea and the entire Jewish diaspora longing and waiting with baited breath for THE Anointed One who would fulfill a checklist of qualifications drawn from various psalms and prophetic writings doesn't hold up under scrutiny of Jewish sources from the Second Temple period in which Christianity was born. A significant number of teachers noted that God's promise to King David was that his line would endure forever, couldn't help but notice that Caesar's agents and not any Davidic king were ruling Jerusalem, and spoke of a hope that God would anoint a king to reclaim David's throne and rule as David was remembered at his best. High Priests were also anointed for office, and some teachers hoped that God would anoint a priest who would reform the Temple hierarchy. Prophets were also sometimes literally anointed as well as anointed figuratively by God, and some who anticipated that God would anoint a particular someone or group of someones in a special way to a prophetic vocation spoke of one or more coming 'anointed ones.'

All that's to say that when Peter says that Jesus is "the Christ" in Mark 8:29, we don't really know what he means. It's possible that Peter didn't exactly know what he meant either. When Jesus asks his followers who they say he is, he isn't a game show host holding a card with a "correct" answer of "Christ" on it. At this point in Jesus' story, "Christ" means such a wide variety of combinations of things Jesus was NOT called to do (e.g., achieve military victory over the Romans or serve as high priest in the Temple) with lots of nothing (e.g., Suetonius' thinking "Christ" must be somebody's name) that even if everyone thought that Jesus was a or even the "Christ," that "knowledge" wouldn't be worth much for Jesus' mission -- indeed, it might even get in the way.

That's probably why Jesus' response to Peter's confession -- a confession that Christians centuries later have labeled "the right answer," and that we even celebrate in the Episcopal Church's calendar as a feast day -- is so shocking. The ONLY thing that Jesus says or does in the Gospel According to Mark in response to Peter's declaration that Jesus is "the Christ" is that "he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him" and he starts talking about suffering, rejection, and death before vindication from God in resurrection. The tone is unmistakable. In effect, Jesus said, "Shut the f*** up!" It's a response to Peter that Christians found so puzzling that Matthew's gospel (16:16-20) adds a long apology for it in which Jesus in effect says "you're right, of course, and I think it's fabulous that you know the truth about me" before saying, "just don't tell anyone -- I mean it."

A lot of sermons I've heard do that too, essentially telling Matthew's story even when preaching on Mark, and in any case leaping to the rightness of the "right answer" to Jesus' question without entering into the awkwardness that all canonical tellings of the story communicate. But what would it look like if we were willing to enter into the drama of this moment?

To start with, we might want to appreciate the cultural considerations that make Jesus' question one that really is wide open, rather than a catechetical drill with one "right answer." People of cultures around the Mediterranean in the first century (and in many of them now!) had what anthropologists call a 'dyadic personality,' in which a person's sense of identity is NOT the kind of individualistic and internalized product we Westerners experience, but is essentially the sum of others' perceptions fed back to them. The closest analogue I can think of in Western societies is the identity of "leader" in the saying, "if nobody's following you, you're not a leader -- you're just taking a walk." In first-century Palestine, when Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" and "Who do you say that I am?" he's not contrasting the answers with his own internalized card with the "right answer" inscribed indelibly on it; he's gathering the information that tells him who he is in this world. (If you'd like to know more about this, I highly recommend the short, readable paperback The New Testament World.) What is at stake when the disciples answer isn't their rightness or wrongness so much as it is Jesus' mission.

I think that's true to a certain extent even if you don't buy what anthropologists tell us about personality in cultures like Jesus'. If I may leap from anthropological to more theological terms, I'll put it this way: as Jesus' followers we are the Body of Christ in the world. Who Jesus is, at least in effect, in this world is going to be the sum of what we say with our whole lives about who Jesus is. And the question is one about behavior as much or more as it is about words now, as it was then.

In other words, Peter's confession is somewhere between incomplete and misleading because he's using words that don't yet carry the meaning they will for him. People say that Jesus is a prophet, and he is -- but what is his message? Peter says that Jesus is the anointed one -- but anointed to do what? Until we're really clear about that -- and I'll argue that no vocabulary speaks as loudly as actions on this point -- the "right" words will carry no meaning or a misleading one.

It's a problem we've still got as much or more in our world. I can say that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God," and if what I mean -- and what my life testifies I mean -- when I say "God" is "that very powerful being in the sky who's itching to punish everyone I dislike or find threatening," my supposedly orthodox confession of Jesus becomes empty at best and oppressive at worst. I can say that Jesus is "my Lord and Savior," and if my life testifies that Jesus saves me from responsibility to care for my neighbors in Cambridge or in the Sudan and that Jesus' lordship is a kind of lording it over those perceived as weak or dirty, my confession is a distraction at best -- something to which Jesus himself would say, "get out of here, accuser!" I can say that Jesus is God's anointed, and that leaves entirely open the question of what kind of God anointed Jesus and for what mission.

I think that's Peter's problem in this Sunday's gospel. Peter has heard Jesus' words, but he not going to get who Jesus is until he sees what Christians see as its fullest expression -- the one condemned to the Cross who forgives his killers vindicated in resurrection by the God who called him there and empowered him to love with God's limitless love. The most compact version of the gospel message, I think, might be St. Paul's summary, "we preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:23) -- that seeming oxymoron pairing "anointed" -- called and honored -- with "crucified" -- suffering and despised by the "right-thinking" people who called with their words and silence, with their deeds and their passivity, for his death. But I can only say that about St. Paul's words because his life gives those words meaning: the man who was so sure he was right that he was willing to participate in the death of those he believed wrong spends the rest of his life pouring himself out -- heart and soul, ink and sweat and blood -- for the people he'd though were too filthy and immoral to be included in God's people, and even for the haughty and self-righteous people within and outside the church who condemned his apostolic mission as the work of the Evil One that undermines the righteous and threatens the very survival of God's people and God's message. I hear St. Paul's proclamation of "Christ crucified" most clearly through Paul's own self-giving love, his testimony to the limitless height and breadth and depth of God's love because of the ways in which Paul himself seemed to find himself stretched by it, rejoicing in one letter at the return of someone he might well have said to "hand over to Satan" in a previous one.

"The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher," Isaiah says, "that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." But Isaiah goes on to say what infuses that word with the power to sustain those suffering:

Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

Isaiah doesn't call this teacher "Christ" -- that association of "God's Anointed" with Isaiah's "suffering servant" was made only in hindsight by Jesus' followers as they reflected on the meaning of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. "Christ" as a word couldn't say fully who Jesus was and is. When we encounter Jesus as "Christ crucified" -- fully present and limitlessly compassionate in suffering -- we find our lives transformed, the Word made flesh giving flesh to words.

Thanks be to God!

September 16, 2006 in Isaiah, Mark, Ordinary Time, The Cross, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proper 18, Year B

Mark 7:31-37 - link to NRSV text
(See also the RCL reading of Mark 7:24-37)

This Sunday's gospel in the RCL poses difficulties from a variety of angles. Jesus encounters a Gentile woman who wants him to heal her daughter. He says no, essentially calls her and all Gentiles dogs, and states firmly that his mission is only to Israel. She argues with him. He then agrees to heal her daughter. What happened?

One thing that has happened in this encounter is that when Jesus answers the woman, regardless of what specifically he says he is recognizing the woman's right to speak with him. Just by making the request, she is implying -- albeit perhaps solely out of desperation -- that she has a right to claim his time and power. By arguing, she implies that she is worthy of challenging him. And by answering, Jesus affirms that she has that status in his eyes. This is a profoundly counter-cultural recognition of her dignity. But then Jesus insults her by calling her and her people dogs (and no, there's no trick of Greek translation that makes it about cute little puppies -- Jesus is calling her people scavengers of the lowest sort).

But then, to all appearances, Jesus changed his mind -- not only about healing one girl, but about his mission. This bothers a lot of people; most sermons I've heard that have taken up this aspect of the story have suggested that Jesus really knew all along that his mission was to Gentiles as well as Jews, and that he was only pretending to think otherwise to help the woman increase her faith, or to further demonstrate his power, or some other reason.

Personally, I find this reading offensive as well as unconvincing. If Jesus changed his mind, then Jesus can't be the kind of eternally changeless "unmoved mover," to use Plato's phrase, that a lot of people present God as being. But if Jesus didn't change his mind and was just saying things he didn't believe so that he could accomplish some other end, then Jesus is a liar -- and a pretty cruel one at that, since the poor woman is clearly worried about her child.

And besides, who -- besides Plato -- says that Jesus isn't allowed to change his mind, to learn something he didn't know before? Learning is part of what it means to be human, I'd say. Try to turn Jesus into someone who knew everything and could do anything from day one and you'll quickly get drawn into fairly silly speculation about how Jesus could have spouted the full Sermon on the Mount (and in any language to boot!) on the day he was born, but faked being able to talk only like the baby he was -- perhaps so he wouldn't give away his secret identity, a la Clark Kent's having to hold back from running at full speed on Smallville. That kind of speculation is evident in some of the later gospels outside the Christian canon, but it's not in any of our canonical gospels, which consistently portray Jesus as a real, honest-to-gosh human being who as a baby needed his diapers changed and who, like the rest of us, learned to walk and talk and function by playing and otherwise interacting with his mother and other people.

In other words, Jesus had to learn words and speech when he was a child. As Luke puts it, "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom" (Luke 2:40). Jesus changed, not only getting taller and physically stronger, but learning things he didn't know before. If that idea is offensive, it's the offensiveness of the Incarnation, of the idea that God could dwell among us in the flesh. Human beings aren't born knowing and doing everything they will ever be able to know and do. They learn and grow, and in particular, they learn and grow in relationship. Jesus did too -- all his life, as human beings do. Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that part of being made in God's image means that we become more fully ourselves in relationship. Knowing others and loving others changes us, teaching things we didn't know before and helping us to grow into the fullness of our identity and vocation, and our capacity to grow in relationship comes from a God who experiences that too.

I know that doesn't fit in very well with that picture of God as an "unmoved mover," never experiencing a change of mind. But that picture is Plato's far more than it is our bible's. Our scriptures are full of stories of human beings trying to change God's mind. We call it intercessory prayer, and scripture shows it as working at least sometimes -- God is moved to show mercy, to act in deliverance because someone asked. Observing that raises a great many problems of theodicy, among other things, but there it is, scattered throughout our canonical writings anyway. And gosh, I'm glad it's there.

I'm glad because it is a wonderful corrective to our human tendencies toward arrogance and hardness of heart. Why should we listen to someone else's view on a matter of importance when we already know what the scriptures say, what those words mean, and therefore what the truth of the matter is? If any had the right to that kind of posture, it would be God. But if we take our scriptures seriously, we have to allow the possibility that God too is changed in relationship. That may sound radical, but I find that radical message in our scriptures, as God is moved after observing the destruction wreaked by the great flood to say "never again," and hangs God's bow -- God's weapon -- in the sky as a sign of God's permanent swearing off of such moves. God -- the one Plato presents as "unmoved mover"-- is MOVED to mercy, and makes a covenant of mercy with all of humanity.

Is it so radical, then, to think that Jesus, God's agent, might also be moved by his encounter with a Gentile woman seeking healing for her daughter? I don't think so -- and if I were preaching this Sunday on the RCL, I'd probably be preaching something along the lines of this: Thank God for people who aren't willing to take "no" for an answer -- even or especially "no" plus Godtalk, a particularly potent combination -- from powerful men, but who will push for compassion and mercy. They prove to us that even God isn't the sort to say, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." They teach us something that we would have gathered anyway had we been paying attention when Jesus says, "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" and makes clear that the "perfect" he means isn't about stasis in a "right" position, but compassion toward righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:43-48). They teach us that no one should be so certain s/he's right that s/he cannot make room to listen, and to listen in a way that allows us to be changed by what we hear. They teach us that God is love, and it's a very poor lover who is eternally unmoved by her or his beloved.

So when Jesus encounters a man who is deaf and therefore mute -- someone who is unable to listen and therefore was unable to learn to speak -- Jesus is very well prepared.

"Be opened," he says. He says it not only with compassion for someone who has suffered, but also with the authority of one who has experienced that of what s/he speaks. That is, after all, what the persistence of the Gentile woman said to him when he was deaf to her cries and therefore unprepared to speak of God's love for all peoples. "Be opened" -- and Jesus was.

Thanks be to God!

September 8, 2006 in Healing, Inclusion, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Miracle stories, Ordinary Time, Women, Year B | Permalink | Comments (5)

Proper 17, Year B

Deueteronomy 4:1-9 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 15 - link to BCP text
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 - link to NRSV text

There are all kinds of irresponsible caricatures drawn from pulpits about what Judaism and Pharisaism was and/or is like, and I expect that too many of them will be drawn this Sunday. This Sunday especially, we need to remember that there's a reason that, for example, Jewish ministries on college campuses are called "Hillel House" after the man who's probably the most famous Pharisee (other than Paul of Tarsus, whom Christians call St. Paul) in history: to my knowledge, all branches of Judaism today are descended from Pharisaism. When we Christians use the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or speak of Pharisaism as a religion of empty ceremonies and heartless enforcement of rules, we are using rhetoric that insults today's Jews and Judaism. Such rhetoric is not only insulting, but also profoundly misleading.

Pharisees in Jesus' day didn't hold to a religion that said that God was more distant or less loving or merciful than the god we proclaim. Anyone who looks up words like 'love/loving' and 'mercy' in a decent concordance that includes the Hebrew bible will find plentiful evidence that the Pharisees taught that God is, in the words of Exodus 34:6-7, "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness," and "forgiving iniquity and sin." Neither did the Pharisees teach that God is distant or that human beings can't have an intimate relationship with God, as anyone who reads the Psalms can witness. Indeed, the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, taught that God could be present in anyone's kitchen, workplace, and bedroom as God is present in the Temple. Nor did the Pharisees confine God's love to Jews or suggest that one had to be born Jewish to know or follow God, as this passage from the Numbers Rabbah (8.3) on proselytes (Gentile converts to Judaism) suggests:

The Holy One loves proselytes exceedingly. To what is the matter like? To a king who had a number of sheep and goats which went forth every morning to the pasture, and returned in the evening to the stable. One day a stag joined the flock and grazed with the sheep, and returned with them. Then the shepherd said to the king, "There is a stag which goes out with the sheep and grazes with them, and comes home with them." And the king loved the stag exceedingly. And he commanded the shepherd, saying, "Give heed unto this stag, that no man beat it"; and when the sheep returned in the evening, he would order that the stag should have food and drink. Then the shepherds said to him, "My Lord, thou hast many goats and sheep and kids, and thou givest us no directions about these, but about this stag thou givest us orders day by day." Then the king replied, "It is the custom of the sheep to graze in the pasture, but the stags dwell in the wilderness, and it is not their custom to come among men in the cultivated land. But to this stag who has come to us and lives with us, should we not be grateful that he has left the great wilderness, where many stags and gazelles feed, and has come to live among us? It behooves us to be grateful." So too spoke the Holy One: "I owe great thanks to the stranger, in that he has left his family and his father's house, and has come to dwell among us; therefore I order in the Law: 'Love ye the stranger'" (Deuteronomy 10:19).
-- The New Testament Background, pp. 208-209

Jesus criticized Pharisees, to be sure, but even when he was doing so harshly, he acknowledged their zeal in evangelism, in letting Gentiles everywhere know that the God of Israel would receive them gladly -- take a look at Matthew 23:15, in which Jesus specifically says to Pharisees, "you cross sea and land to make a single convert." Nor were the Pharisees uninterested in justice for the poor; they taught that scripture passages like this week's reading from Deuteronomy mean that God made the Hebrews a people and chose them specifically so they could be a community that did things differently from the nations, including caring for the poor, and in a way that could make the people of the God of Israel a light for the whole world.

In short, Jesus didn't criticize Pharisees so passionately because they were the furthest from his point of view; he criticized particular Pharisees because in so many ways their thinking was so very close to his. In other words, Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees is a quarrel between brothers -- which, as anyone who grew up with siblings knows, can be the most animated kinds of arguments.

So what, then, was the substance of Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees? I've said a great deal so far about what it was NOT, but little about what it was. The short answer is, I think, the main point of this week's gospel reading, and it's a point that ought to be very challenging for us too. The Pharisees weren't concerned only with purity laws; they are, after all, the people who lobbied longest and hardest for prophetic books like Isaiah to be counted as scripture. And their position on purity laws was one that, I think most Pharisees were argue (if you'll forgive my saying this in anachronistic terms), was an inclusive and progressive one. Sadducees would say that the purity rules that priests (and you had to be a male without deformity born into a priestly family to be a priest -- it wasn't something one could choose or decline) were supposed to follow surrounding their periods of service in the Temple were just for those born in a position that would bring them into God's holy place. The Pharisees were making Judaism and the sense it offered of being in God's presence accessible to anyone by saying that anyone could be a Jew and a Pharisee, and any place could be holy to God if only people would treat it as such. That point is the core, I think, of Jesus' agreement with his Pharisaic contemporaries.

The disagreement was about what it was that made a place holy, what it was that constituted purity. This Sunday's gospel shows Jesus teaching something with potentially radical implications. It's not that purity doesn't matter. Getting people to treat everything and everyone as pure would, in my opinion, be hopeless in any culture, and probably not desirable either. Sometimes I ask students to make a list of the purity rules they follow. At first they usually object that they don't follow any, but then I offer some examples. Most of us grow up being taught not to eat or leave the bathroom without washing our hands. Oh, but that's just about germs, right? Our purity rules are just about health and science, and those are the only purity rules worth following. But we generally think it's weird or even offensive to prepare food in the bathroom -- a rule that's not at core about germs, as studies have demonstrated that the bathroom is generally the least germ-ridden place in our houses. But guests would be puzzled or grossed out if they thought I'd prepared their dinner in the room I used to defecate. I'm not saying that's bad or stupid -- I'm just saying that we ALL have purity rules that we follow.

And that's why I think what Jesus does in this Sunday's gospel is so brilliantly subversive. Jesus redefines purity in terms of "what comes out of a person" -- of qualities we demonstrate in relationships.

It's brilliant because it would have been someone between fruitless and counter-productive for Jesus to say anything like "purity doesn't matter." Human beings just aren't 'wired' culturally to be that way -- and being the kind of person who will say "that just isn't appropriate," especially when we feel and say it on a gut level, can be very helpful in some circumstances. But Jesus is proposing that intentionally, in community, we 're-wire' ourselves, building a subculture that trains us to feel as much 'ick factor' about carelessly wounding remarks as most of us were taught growing up to feel about carelessly (or, if you have to have it in 'scientific' terms, unhygienically) prepared food. Jesus is proposing that we intentionally build a culture that worries about whether our behavior is feeding grudges or a spiral of violence in the same way -- but with considerably more intensity -- than most of us were brought up to worry about food practices feeding bacteria. And building that kind of culture requires that we engage intentionally with one another in the kind of gentle, consistent, persistent, 24/7 formation in community that, in most healthy households, gradually teaches children about washing hands and being careful with meat and potato salad. That would be a radical move. Can you imagine how much more positively people at large would view churches if every congregation put as much care into seeing that our children aren't infected with racism or pride as we generally want them to put into seeing that they're not infected with salmonella at the potluck?

That would be cool. But that's not the most radical implication of what Jesus teaches about purity.

The most radical implication of Jesus' view of purity is something that St. Paul picks up and applies to his view of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. Most views of purity that anyone would count sensible know that if just one impure thing comes into contact with something pure, that transmits the impurity -- in other words, both things will now be impure. If just a wee bit of litter from the catbox makes it into a cake, that cake -- not just a piece of it, and regardless of what scientific tests demonstrate that some part of it is free of bacterial nastiness -- is not going to be seen as suitable to serve to guests. That assumption about purity often carries over into how we treat people, though. There are some things people can do that render them in relational terms "radioactive" -- treated as untouchable, lest we "catch" their bad reputation and/or bad conduct. But what if purity is every bit as transmittable as impurity? What if purity can actually overpower impurity? In St. Paul's view, a woman -- a person the culture sees as easily made impure -- can actually render her whole household "pure," holy, a place where God is powerfully present and powerfully at work. That attributes a great deal of positive power to the woman.

And that's an idea I'd say Paul got from Jesus, and specifically as a solid inference from passages like this Sunday's gospel, as well as from Jesus' consistent example. It is possible, Jesus teaches us, to live in such a way, to display in our relationships a quality and consistency of love, that something the world writes off as irredeemable is transformed into something bearing witness to God's power to redeem. If it's "what goes in" that makes someone impure, then people need to guard carefully against coming into contact with the wrong sort of person, lest they come into contact with the wrong sort of things. But if what flows out of people in loving relationship with one another radiates purity, then we are freed to live making decisions based on love and not in fear. That is an incredibly radical, liberating, transformative insight -- one I'm always trying to take in more deeply.

And there's one further insight from Jesus' view of purity that might be more radical still. If purity is something radiated out by how we are in relationships, then we actually NEED other people for a life of holiness. For example, if true purity is about exercising forgiveness, then we NEED to take the risk of staying in relationship with people the world thinks are hopeless to experience God's holiness. If true purity involves exercising compassion, then suffering in the world isn't proof that God doesn't care, but is an opportunity to experience and proclaim just how much and in what ways God does care. If true purity is about relationship, then the challenges facing us as a church of flawed and bickering people are an opportunity to understand God's grace more deeply and proclaim it more powerfully by insisting that reconciliation be the first, middle, and final word. Is that possible? If Jesus is right, if what's "out there" doesn't make us impure and purity flows out in relationship, then past or present nastiness already "out there" is beyond what can be transformed by God's holy and holy-making love. That's Jesus' teaching in this Sunday's gospel; that's the example we have in Jesus' manner of life, which posed a profound challenge to his Pharisaic brothers much as it challenges the church today.

Thanks be to God!

September 1, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Deuteronomy, Mark, Matthew, Pharisees, Purity, Year B | Permalink | Comments (5)