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? This seems to happen to me a lot. I often say that one of my strengths is also one of my weaknesses—being able to see both sides of any argument. Of course, arguments never happen in the Church ☺.
Today’s gospel is sort of like listening in on a family argument. The Pharisees are angry that Jesus doesn’t uphold the ritual purity laws that are central to their religious practices. Jesus argues that how we eat does not make us holy. It is easy—too easy—to dismiss the Pharisees in this story as backward traditionalists, stuck in ritual with no true faith, no true religion, as James puts it, and as we prayed in today’s collect. It is easy to dismiss the Pharisees as having lost their connection to the God who delivered them from slavery and gave them the commandments. But we need to enter into both sides of the story. To do this, I begin with a very condensed version of what I call “Old Testament 101.”
My version of Old Testament 101 always starts with Psalm 137. Psalm 137 is especially 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 upon an alien soil? Or, if you’re singing the reggae version, from the King James Bible, how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
The stories we read and the how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange religious practices that we encounter in the Hebrew Bible and in the ongoing life of God’s people are almost always attempts to answer that question. How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Before the Jewish people were deported, en masse, to Babylon in 586BCE, 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, where they lived for half a century, their entire identity was up for grabs. It is in the context of this identity crisis of a whole people, 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.
One was to tell their own version of the creation story. Every people has its creation story, so if the Jews were to continue to be a people, they should have one, too. So they told stories, there on the edge of the Euphrates River, that had poetry and a rhythm that was easy to remember. God said, let there be light. And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day. Then God said.…and there was evening, and there was morning, the second day. They memorized the story and told it to each other for generations. The story transcended place, and so it helped them continue to be a people in a strange land. In that same creation story was born the tradition of the Sabbath. Without a physical temple, the Sabbath gave them a “temple in time.”
When God’s people returned to Judah around 537BCE, their task was to carry that new sense of identity back with them. The way they did this was to be unswervingly faithful to social customs, religious practices, and dietary laws that they believed kept them together, kept them strong and healthy, practices that said to the world around them: We belong to the God of Israel.
So this is how I understand the Pharisees’ side of the story. The ritual purity laws that 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. 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.
Jesus’ side of the story is that there is and always has been an even deeper way to be the people of God, a new identity of the heart.
The danger in focusing on purity of practice is that it becomes exclusionary rather than reconciling, idolatrous rather than worshipful. The Pharisees are not bad Jews and they are not bad people. But they have in a sense lost their way. Jesus calls them back to what matters—what is in their hearts.
Jesus has not come to abolish the law, but rather to call God’s people to be faithful to what underlies the law: God does not ask for purity of practice, but purity of heart. Purity of heart may be impossible for humans, but the gospel reminds us that it is in the heart that the impulses that work against purity— impulses toward fornication, avarice, theft, and so on—it is in the heart that those impulses reside, along with impulses toward love, hospitality, repentance, charity, and justice.
It is tempting to pose the question—as I hope that we do, from time to time: what would Jesus think about all this? Does it matter? If so many of our resources go toward beautiful space and beautiful music, have we gotten away from love, justice, sacrificial generosity, caring for widows and orphans? If Jesus came back today, what would he think of St. Paul’s? What would he think of any institutional church building, for that matter? (These are things those of us with fiscal responsibility for churches sometimes find ourselves thinking about at 3am in budget season.) One of the things that makes our worship unique is the care and intentionality we bring to every moment of the liturgy. Is this care and intentionality a kind of ritual washing? Or is it part of the arc that bends toward purity of heart, and toward true religion?
That depends. If our worship is about the perfect expression of a particular technique that keeps those who are not proficient or not “in the know,” on the outside looking in, if this is what our worship is about, or if people experience our worship as rigid or exclusionary, then we run the risk of eclipsing our primary purpose with ritual practices that separate us from one another. But if we worship with our whole bodies and all of our senses because we worship a God who comes to us as a body, and because we want to be that body and share that body with the world, then our worship is how we sing God’s song in a strange land. Then our worship becomes the way that our eyes are open to the presence of God in the world, and to the needs of those who are hungry, isolated, distressed, or longing for a glimpse of God’s kingdom. When what we do as a gathered community in this strange land is nourished by God’s grace, it becomes how we are faithful, how we follow, and how we grow as individuals and as a body. When we, nourished by Christ’s body, become Christ’s body, we become not just hearers but doers of the word. And perhaps our hearts will become God’s heart.