Have you ever been caught right smack in the middle of an argument? Have you ever listened carefully to two sides of a story, and found yourself sympathetic to both? There are people in my extended family who don’t always get along with each other, and for some reason they always come to me assuming that I’ll take their side.
Today’s gospel is sort of like listening in to a family disagreement. The Pharisees are angry that Jesus doesn’t uphold the ritual purity laws that are central to their religious practices. Jesus argues that what we eat does not make us holy. In order to enter into the Good News, we need to enter into both sides of the story. To aid in this, I offer you a very condensed version of what I call “Old Testament 101.”
My version of OT 101 starts with verse 4 of Psalm 137. Psalm 137 is familiar to reggae fans: it begins with “By the waters of Babylon, where we sat down….” Verse 4 asks a question: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Many of the stories we read in the Hebrew Bible, and the religious practices that are described both in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, are answers to that question, how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
In the year 586 BC, Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, and the Jewish people were carried off to Babylon, where they lived in exile for 50 years. Before this deportation and exile, to be a follower of the God of Israel meant to be part of the land of Israel, and to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. In Babylon, their entire identity was up for grabs. It is in the context of this experience of displacement, the identity crisis of a whole nation, that I ask you to imagine small bands of the descendants of Abraham, sitting around a campfire at night by the waters of Babylon, asking that question: What does it mean to be God’s people without our land and without our temple? How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? They came up with several answers, including their own creation story, the Sabbath, and the dietary practices peppered throughout scripture. Each of these transcended place, and helped the Israelites to continue to be a people in a strange land.
The ritual purity laws which Jesus bumps up against five hundred years later are the way that the Jewish people became a people. During the time of their exile and during the time of their return, it was the only way that they could affirm their identity as the people of God. It was their song to God in a strange land, their song to God in a strange time. And many of these practices—the Sabbath, keeping kosher, strict teachings on intermarriage—these practices have helped sustain and strengthen the Jewish people during times of exile and displacement ever since. This is how I understand the Pharisees’ side of the story.
Jesus’ side of the story is that there is an even deeper way to be the people of God. As he does all through the Gospels, Jesus does not say he has come to abolish the law of the Jewish people, but rather to call them to be faithful to what underlies the law. Jesus essentially reminds them, and us, that God does not ask for purity of food we eat, but purity of heart.
It is easy for us to dismiss the Jewish elders as overly rigid and as focusing only on the external trappings of religion. But before we interpret this gospel simply as a “dissing” of established and outmoded Jewish practices, let’s take a look around us. We gather each week in a dimly-lit space filled with the trappings of ritual. The candles, the sanctuary light, the altar. Vestments. The roles that some of us play in the service. Special words that we use. (Someone once told me: it’s not “bread,” it’s the “sacred host.”)
I think that if any of us were pushed to answer the question: what would Jesus think about all this? we would have to wonder whether we’ve somehow gotten away from the essence of religion: love, kindness, sacrificial generosity, caring for widows and orphans. And yet, I think that if we really thought about it, we would also say that all of our trappings—the flowers, the organ, the special prayers, when we stand or sit or kneel—are not meaningless or silly to us. They help us to be faithful. Many of us are Anglicans precisely because we like this kind of thing. Because our language and our understanding of light and dark and color and song and silence are all pathways to that deeper way of being the people of God.
When we confuse ritual with discipleship, then we are no longer listening to Jesus’ side of the story. When our ritual keeps us from looking around at who is hungry, who is outside, who is lonely or scared, then it ceases to serve the purpose for which it was created, and we cease to serve the purpose for which we are created. When ritual is a pathway toward living out God’s plan for salvation, when it is an expression of God’s grace that nourishes us in this strange land in which we live, then it becomes part of how we are faithful, and part of how we follow.