Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

  Northern Great Lakes SynodEvangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaBethany on Facebook  

Pentecost 09/02/2012

Supper’s ready—go wash your hands.  My parents said that to me, your parents said it to you, you said it to your kids, parents still say it because they always have.  You wash your hands before you eat and at a lot of other times to prevent the spread of germs that can cause illness and infection; for us it’s not a religious ritual, it’s just good hygiene.  It’s not foolproof obviously, but we know that hand washing is one of the best ways to keep germs from spreading, so kids learn early on to wash their hands.

In Jesus’ time they may not have known as much as we do about how germs are spread, but they must have had their hunches about it because  washing your hands before you ate was a religious ritual and it was probably even more important then because for the most part there was no silverware; you ate with your hands, maybe using a piece of bread as a scoop sometimes but there was much more direct hand contact with food, hence the hand washing rituals as part of the tradition.  But in the story today that’s not really what the Pharisees were concerned about.  They weren’t worried about Jesus’ disciples getting sick; as they kept an eye on what Jesus was up to, the Pharisees were thinking about other things.

The positive view of the holiness codes, those ritual laws of the Bible, is that besides having health benefits, they were about separating oneself from what is common in the world before approaching God which is not a bad idea.  They understood their God to be so different and so distinct that one should not dare to draw near without first considering that difference.  Many of the rituals then, were a way to do that in order to properly approach and honor God.  Again, not a bad idea; rituals as reminders of God’s holiness. 

This kind of ritual holiness is a little foreign to us but it may not be as foreign as we think.  I think the same principle of ritual holiness is behind dressing up for church.  It’s a way to separate what we do here from what we do at other times in other places.  So, in some ways it’s more for us than it is for God.  I think God is OK with however we dress for church but if dressing up serves as a reminder that what we do here is different because God is different, that’s OK; however you do it, it’s good to call that difference of God, that holiness of God to mind.

What happened though at the time Jesus was around, was that this understanding of the rituals as a reminder of God’s holiness had kind of slipped through the cracks and instead the rituals had come to be seen as boundary markers, boundary markers of exclusion which caused Jews to see themselves as different than everyone else, which in some ways might be OK, but it was also making them feel like they were better than everyone else.  The focus shifted from emphasizing God’s difference to emphasizing their difference, their separateness rather than God’s.  It became a way to keep people out.  Putting that into our context it would be like the guy wearing a jacket and tie to church thinking he’s better than the guy who comes dressed more casually, in fact thinking that the casual dresser should just stay home, he doesn’t belong here.  Meanwhile God and worship of God and the holiness of God get lost in the shuffle.

So that desire to acknowledge difference is one aspect of the ritual law of the Bible but another aspect of it is the desire for order.  To varying degrees, we all have a need for order and the Bible reflects this.  The commandments, which we understand to be given by God, reflect God’s will that life be lived in an orderly way.  The other ritual laws, most of which we don’t pay much attention to, are reflective of the same desire for order; there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things.  What happens then, is anytime our ideal of order is challenged, we find it upsetting and we’ve all got our limits, we’ll go so far but then it’s too much for us to handle. 

For some of us the order of worship is important and we don’t like it when that order isn’t followed and the patterns we’ve become used to aren’t there for us.  Others couldn’t care less about that.  I also think many of the culture wars we get into as a church and as a nation are as much about perceptions of order being upset as anything else.  Some things just don’t seem right, it’s different things for different people but some things just don’t seem right and when what doesn’t seem right to us becomes accepted, it’s upsetting even if we’re wrong.  All of us do need some sense of order to feel secure, but when that sense of order becomes the most important thing and we can’t see past it, then it become idolatrous as we lose sight of God.

For the Pharisees, the behavior of Jesus and his disciples was threatening their sense of order.  In their defense, rather than just seeing them as the bad guys, we should remember that they were the keepers of the tradition, they were trying to do what they were supposed to do, trying to protect what they thought was right and seeing Jesus’ disciples not observing the proper rituals was upsetting to them.  Again, we all have our limits on what we find to be acceptable behavior, ritual or otherwise.  But Jesus sensed that a desire for order wasn’t the real issue for the Pharisees.  It was more about boundaries and exclusion. 

What Jesus then does is to turn this into an issue of interpreting scripture.  The Pharisees could no doubt quote for Jesus chapter and verse that called for ritual cleanliness but Jesus knew how to play that game.  He came back at them with the text from Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”  With that he challenges the Pharisees which of course they didn’t like.  Were they really concerned about these rituals as a part of good order, a means to properly honor the holiness of the Lord, or were they really trying to find ways to show that Jesus and his disciples were outside the boundaries of who and what they found to be acceptable?  It’s pretty clear what Jesus thought the answer to that question was even though the Pharisees didn’t like his interpretation of scripture.

Making this text about interpretation of scripture creates some tension  though, tension for us.  What it highlights is a tension that exists in the Bible itself, tension between the need for order and the need for justice.  Both needs are emphasized, pretty much side by side and both are legitimate, both have their place.  What Jesus does though, quite consistently, is to make order secondary to justice in his interpretation of things.   

In this lesson today, Jesus moves well beyond the issue of hand washing and entirely dismisses the dietary laws of clean and unclean foods; at the end of v. 19, “Thus he declared all foods clean.”  He reinterprets scripture and you can hear the Pharisees in the background saying, “But it says in Leviticus, it says in the law…who are you to say it doesn’t matter?” and remember a lot of those food laws weren’t nitpicky and trivial, they had health implications.  Yet Jesus declares all foods clean not for a lack of concern about health, but he does it as the removal of a boundary marker, one that would exclude those whose dietary habits were different.  For him, removing that boundary was a more important issue but for a strict Jew, a Pharisee, you can see how this would upset their sense of order, their sense of what represents acceptable behavior and acceptable interpretation of scripture.

Obviously we’re not all that worried about the dietary laws; for us that’s not really the issue here.  The larger question for us is, Jesus did this kind of re-interpretation of scripture, but can we?  Even though the Old Testament law says this or that or Paul says this, that or the other thing, can we say, “Yes, but in our time it needs to be revisited just like Jesus revisited some things.”  One of the reasons there is so much diversity in the Christian tradition is because there are many answers to that question.  The ELCA Lutheran answer though, is yes we can if, and it’s a big if, if we do it on the same terms Jesus did.  Jesus reinterpreted the law through the lens of grace and justice.  For him, that trumped the need for order.  He reinterpreted the law because it was being used to exclude people.  He reinterpreted the law to remove boundaries that separated people. 

When we see a literal reading of the Bible being used as a weapon to exclude people, we can reinterpret it.  It always opens us to the claim that we don’t take the authority of the Bible seriously but I would counter that claim by saying that we take it so seriously that like Jesus, we continue to prayerfully study it and probe it to see what it is saying to us, today, not just what it said a long time ago because for us it’s the living word of God still speaking to new situations. 

Jesus was always looking to welcome and include not to separate and exclude even if it upset the perceived order of things.  When his words and words about him are used in ways that exclude we have to challenge that interpretation even if it upsets our sense of order because the salvation he offers is for everyone including those beyond whatever boundaries we set up.  It’s still good to wash you hands though because when you cross boundaries your hands might get dirty.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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