Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sermon: 15 Pentecost (24 August 2008)

Sermon: 15 Pentecost (24 August 2008)
(Genesis 45:1-15/Psalm 133/Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32/Matthew 15:10-28)
Wash Your Hands Before You Eat

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In October 2007 Barack Obama stopped wearing the United States flag label pin that has become the standard fashion for most male politicians. His actions caused a furor and required several explanations. Here is how one political blogger documented the conservative outrage.

Yesterday, in response to a question from a reporter suspicious of why he wasn’t wearing an American flag pin on his lapel, Barack Obama explained his belief that for some, the pins became a substitute for “true patriotism.” The senator said he would instead “try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”

I didn’t expect leading conservative voices to understand, but I was a little surprised at the ferocity of the response. Jonah Goldberg described Obama’s perspective as “staggeringly stupid,” and “the single dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of him doing.” Another prominent far-right blogger responded this way:

Seriously, you want this for President of these great United States.This is how he catches the attention of a media aligned with the terror force? This useful tool won’t wear an American flag pin? Talk about pandering to the radical base, he ought to run against Ahmadinejad…What’s Obama Hussein’s new campaign slogan, “America Sucks!” ?

Higher-profile conservative voices were only slightly less unhinged.
But talk radio and cable news quickly pounced on the issue. “It just shows you he’s not ready for the big time,” conservative Laura Ingram opined on Fox News. Said Sean Hannity: “Why do we wear pins? Because our country is under attack!”

But for my money, James Joyner relied on a Seinfeld episode to offer the most clever, poignant take on the “controversy.”

ORGANIZER: But you have to wear an AIDS ribbon.
KRAMER: I have to?
KRAMER: See, that’s why I don’t want to.
ORGANIZER: But everyone wears the ribbon. You must wear the ribbon!
KRAMER: You know what you are? You’re a ribbon bully.
ORGANIZER: Hey you! Come back here! Come back here and put this on!
New scene - Kramer in the AIDS walk. Some AIDS activists accost him for failing to wear the red ribbon.
WALKER #1: Hey, where’s your ribbon?
KRAMER: Oh, I don’t wear the ribbon.
WALKER #2: Oh, you don’t wear the ribbon? Aren’t you against AIDS?
KRAMER: Yeah, I’m against AIDS. I mean, I’m walking, aren’t I? I just don’t wear the ribbon.
WALKER #3: Who do you think you are?
WALKER #1: Put the ribbon on!
WALKER #2: Hey, Cedric! Bob! This guy won’t wear a ribbon!
BOB: Who? Who does not want to wear the ribbon?
New scene - Kramer surrounded by Cedric, Bob, and the other walkers.
BOB: So! What’s it going to be? Are you going to wear the ribbon?
KRAMER (nervously): No! Never.
BOB: But I am wearing the ribbon. He is wearing the ribbon. We are all wearing the ribbon! So why aren’t you going to wear the ribbon!?
KRAMER: This is America! I don’t have to wear anything I don’t want to wear!
CEDRIC: What are we gonna do with him?
BOB: I guess we are just going to have to teach him to wear the ribbon!

I didn’t see this episode of Seinfeld so I don’t what happened next, but I’ll bet it wasn’t pretty.

The gospel text today mirrors concern over Obama’s reluctance to wear the flag lapel pin or Kramer’s refusal to wear the red, AIDS ribbon. On the surface it all seems a bit juvenile; but, underneath there is a powerful and explosive clash of agendas. How can you be president if you are not patriotic enough to wear the flag pin? How can you be an AIDS activist if you are not committed enough to wear the red ribbon? How can you be the Messiah, how can you proclaim the kingdom of God, if you will not even wash your hands?

Now a little history is in order. During the Babylonian exile (586-538 B.C.), some 600 years prior to Jesus, the Jews struggled to maintain their national identity against the forces of assimilation. Jerusalem had been destroyed along with the Davidic dynasty. The temple was in ruins. The people were exiles under pagan rule. The prophets – before, during, and after the exile – attributed this Jewish plight to infidelity, to disregard of the covenant and the law. Israel had left YHWH, her true husband, and had played the harlot with the gods of the nations, worshipping them on every hill, in every sacred grove. The moral and ethical fabric of society had disintegrated; the rich and powerful neglected and abused the poor and disenfranchised; the priests and prophets practiced religion-for-show and faith-for-profit; the merchants schemed and cheated the poor and catered to the lusts of the opulently wealthy. For these sins God had abandoned his people, lifted his protection, and brought a foreign nation against his once-holy city. And now what? With no king, no land, and no temple, how would it be possible to retain a political and religious national identity? Only through a return to the roots of covenant and law, a return to the sacred stories and practices that originally constituted them as a people: circumcision, prayer, Sabbath – all the sacred rituals it was possible to perform without temple and in a foreign land. The synagogue developed – community houses of prayer not for sacrifice, but for worship and study of Torah. The Tanakh – the full collection of Jewish scripture including Law, Prophets, and Writings – was redacted: written, edited, compiled. The scribes – experts in the Law – expanded the Law, introducing and teaching oral tradition that simultaneously stiffened the requirements of the Law and paradoxically created clever loopholes in the Law. The Law’s purity code – external behaviors that made and kept one ritually clean – took on new and greater significance for a people governed and surrounded by unclean, gentile dogs. What you ate or refused to eat, with whom you associated, how you kept Sabbath, how you purified yourself through ritual washing: all these things became badges of identity and assumed significance disproportionate to their real importance.

Now, fast forward some 300 years – still 200 years or so before Jesus. The Jews have returned to Israel, resettled the land, and rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple. And yet they are not and essentially never have been free since the exile. Wave after wave of foreign powers had broken over Israel: Alexander the Great, Ptolemy of Egypt, and now the Seleucids – Syrians. These latest conquerors, the Seleucids – especially under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes – were determined to eradicate Jewish national identity and force gentile ways upon the Jews. The apocryphal text of 1 Maccabees records this dire time under the king Antiochus.

41 Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, 42and that all should give up their particular customs. 43All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. 44And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, 45to forbid burnt-offerings and sacrifices and drink-offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, 46to defile the sanctuary and the priests, 47to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, 48and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, 49so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. 50He added, ‘And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.’
51 In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. He appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the towns of Judah to offer sacrifice, town by town. 52Many of the people, everyone who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; 53they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had.
54 Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-fifth year,
they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt-offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah, 55and offered incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. 56The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. 57Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king. 58They kept using violence against Israel, against those who were found month after month in the towns. 59On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt-offering. 60In accordance with the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, 61and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks.
62 But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. 63They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. 64Very great wrath came upon Israel (1 Maccabees 1:41-64, NRSV).

For these Jews – the ones who chose to die rather than to be defiled – purity was both a religious and political issue: a proclamation of covenant loyalty and national patriotism. There arose a zealous insurgency led by the priest Mattathias and his five sons, John surnamed Gaddi, 3Simon called Thassi, 4Judas called Maccabeus, 5Eleazar called Avaran, and Jonathan called Apphus – the Maccabees. They assembled the righteous ones in Israel and routed the Seleucids in a series of battles, for a time gaining independence for their nation. Though a new power, Rome, ultimately conquered the land – and the world – some 80 years later, the spirit of the those who died rather than sacrifice their purity, the spirit of the righteous ones who fought for their national identity, the spirit of the Maccabees gave birth to a new sect in Israel – the Pharisees – a sect devoted to strict observance of the Law and the traditions of the elders, a political and religious purity sect.

These Pharisees come to Jesus.

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat’ (Mt 15:1-2, NRSV).

This seemingly juvenile, trivial question is anything but. Why are you not patriotic enough to wear the flag lapel pin? Why are you not committed enough to wear the red AIDS ribbon? Why are you not faithful enough to the covenant of YHWH and the nation of Israel to wash your hands? This question is a direct challenge to the loyalty of Jesus to God and country. Just 200 years ago, their question implies, our fathers fought and died rather than sacrifice their purity, fought and died so that we might wash our hands this day, and you and your disciples trample on that privilege and responsibility. You trample on the sacred memory of those righteous ones. So again we ask, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

This is a clash of religious and political agendas that will end with Jesus on the cross. What can he answer? Only this: that the Pharisees have missed the true way; that their political and religious agenda is a dead end that will ultimately lead to the destruction of all they hold dear; that they have become blind guides of the blind; that their way of being Israel is not God’s way of being Israel; that the purity streaming forth from a man’s heart is the only purity that matters; and that what streams forth from their hearts is anything but pure. This seemingly silly confrontation over the minutiae of the Law is really a cosmic battle for the hearts and souls of man. Will it be the Pharisees’ way of law and tradition, of external purity and rigid exclusion, of national and religious isolationism, or will it be Jesus’ way of grace and mercy, of internal purity and radical welcome, of one family and one holy people – Jews and gentiles alike?

Why should we care about this, about all this history, politics, religion – about these agendas? Because agendas are never private, never purely abstract or theoretical. Because agendas ultimately impact real people – people like the Canaanite woman.

There are many ways to read Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman – and many ways to misread it. I suggest that in the present context we consider it a morality play – a drama about these two agendas – a drama in which Jesus plays two parts: first Pharisee, then herald of the Kingdom of God.

Following his clash with the Pharisees, Jesus heads to gentile territory, perhaps seeking refuge, perhaps seeking the opportunity to drive a point home to his disciples. A Canaanite woman – a gentile woman thoroughly unclean by the standards of the Pharisees – accosts Jesus with a plea for help. “’Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon’” (Mt 15:22b, NRSV). I wonder how many times Jesus had answered similar requests in Galilee or Judea? But here? He ignores the woman. He treats her as so thoroughly beneath contempt that her request – perhaps her very person – merits no acknowledgement. In short, Jesus treats her precisely as the Pharisees would treat her. It is also the way Jesus’ own disciples would have treated her: “And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’“ She fails their test of external purity.

When Jesus finally turns to her it is still in his role as Pharisee or disciple. ”’I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” And there you have it. This is where an agenda of political, racial, national, or religious purity always brings us – to treat people like us as children and those different than us, those we deem unclean, as animals – not pampered pets but dangerous, mongrels. With no further words, Jesus says to his disciples and to us, This is the path down which the Pharisees’ agenda will take you. Let me show you a better way.

The Canaanite woman is not to be deterred. For love for her daughter she accepts her unclean status before Jesus and cries out from her heart, “‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” And now, in a great role reversal, Jesus becomes the herald of the Kingdom of God, becomes truly himself. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” This outwardly unclean, gentile woman demonstrated more purity of heart and faith than the externally, ritually pure Pharisees could even begin to imagine. And that made all the difference. I can just imagine Jesus turning to his amazed – and just perhaps shamed – disciples as if to say, Look closely at this. This is my agenda; this is my way. Take up your cross and follow me.

So many agendas compete for our loyalty. The agenda of nationalism calls us to fear anyone with a middle-eastern name or complexion, or to build walls to keep out the Mexicans. The agenda of class calls us to disparage the poor, unskilled, and under-educated. The agenda of morality calls us to condemn the criminal, the addict, and the homosexual. The agenda of religion calls us to disassociate from the Catholics or Southern Baptists or Pentecostals or Episcopalians. And other powerful agendas beckon: power, sex, money. Each of these agendas ultimately calls us to look upon some person or persons as less than human: as objects to be used for our welfare or as dogs to be ridiculed or ignored. All of these agendas call us to be like the Pharisees who came to Jesus that day. “‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’”

This account is a clarion call to lay aside all these false agendas of purity and self-righteousness and self-interest and to embrace the one true, life-giving agenda. The only agenda we dare have, the only agenda we can have if we are to be faithful to the One who calls us his own, is Jesus Christ and him crucified; Jesus Christ the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; Jesus Christ, the head of the body, the church; Jesus Christ the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; Jesus Christ in whom dwells the fullness of God; Jesus Christ through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross; Jesus Christ who came to present all the unclean, all the impure – which is all of us – holy and blameless and irreproachable before his God and Father (cf Col 1:15-22).


[1] The Carpetbagger Report,, accessed 8/5/2008.

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