The issue that Jesus and his disciples did not wash their hands was not the Pharisees’ concern about the spread of germs. This is about ritual purity. The Mosaic Law defined certain kinds of uncleanness which required a kind of ritual washing to make oneself again worthy. The Pharisees believed that Moses received other commandments from God communicated privately to the Pharisees down through the generations.
Many, many people were labeled unclean – because of their birthright (being a Samaritan, for example); because of their vocation (being a shepherd or a tax collector, for example); because of their poverty (because they could not afford to purchase a clean animal or bird for temple sacrifice to atone for their sins); because of their sickness (because they could not afford to see a doctor); or simply because of their humanity (for example, a woman who had given birth to a child). All these people, and many other types, were unclean. Whenever a Pharisee came from the marketplace or public gathering, hand-washing was required to ritually cleanse oneself, if only because of having accidentally touched an unclean person. Before and after every meal, a ritual hand-washing was required according to certain ceremonial practices. All cups, pots, brazen vessels, and sitting places also had to be ritually cleansed.
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Life is full of mystery. Especially people. We are all such mysteries. Yet there are these moments when we learn something about another person, and it’s like the light turns on in our heart of understanding who they are and why. It may be in our learning about their family of origin, their life history, their health, their abilities and training, their failures or successes. Whatever. And we have this “ah-ha” moment. It’s like a missing piece has been found in the puzzle of understanding this person… and their life now makes much more sense to us. Perhaps even what before had seemed to us a stain on this person’s character, we now can see is a scar which they have worn and wear well. We realize they are something of a walking miracle. You probably have had this experience. I certainly have.
The word in the scriptures that captures this deep sense of understanding another person is mercy, often also translated as compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion comes from the same root as the word for womb. Compassion is womb-like, for both the giver and the receiver.[i] Compassion safely, gently nurtures life. Estelle Frankel, a rabbi and psychotherapist, says that, “With compassion we enable all things to grow into their most beautiful and complete form, and with compassion we learn the wisdom of the womb,” how to hold, when to hold back as we carry someone in our womb of awareness.[ii]
Isaiah 35: 4 – 7a; Psalm 146; James 2: 1 – 10 (11 – 13) 14 – 17; Mark 7: 24 – 37
I love this story of the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from the Gospel of Mark! I love it in part, because I get to say the word Syrophoenician! Just throw that into the conversation next time you are at a dinner party and see how impressed people are with your erudition! I love it because of the breathlessness with which Mark tells the story. You can almost hear the urgency in Mark’s voice, as in just six verses he tells us an awful lot, that is profoundly significant. I love it, because it harkens back to the church of my youth, and it calls to mind growing up at St. Mary’s, Regina. It is from this passage, among other sources, that Cranmer created, what some of you will remember, as the Prayer of Humble Access, or the Zoom Prayer, as a friend of mine calls it:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us. Amen.
But mostly I love this story because it shouldn’t have happened! There is a hint of the forbidden. We see Jesus acting out of the box. He shouldn’t be where we find him today, doing what he shouldn’t be doing. And that’s just the point.
You might have noticed that the gospel story read this morning contains two healing miracles, not one. What makes them particularly interesting is that they are interwoven – in fact, one story interrupts the other.
We find Jesus surrounded by “a large crowd” just after his return from a healing mission that had taken him across the Sea of Galilee. A man approaches him – not just any man, but a leader of the synagogue, a person of considerable social status and importance. He is desperate with worry and grief and, abandoning all dignity, he falls to the ground at Jesus’ feet and “begs him repeatedly,” the gospel writer tells us,to come and lay his hands on his sick daughter, who is at the point of death. There is a mixture of desperation and hope in his eyes. He is convinced that Jesus has the authority to make her well, if only he will come, and quickly. So Jesus went with him. The crowd followed.
On the way a curious thing happens. Jesus suddenly stops and looks around. “Who touched me?” he asks. This strikes even his own disciples as an odd question, given that throngs of people are surrounding him and jostling against him. But he is “aware that power had gone forth from him” and he wants to know to whom it has gone. There is a pause, until a woman slowly comes forward and admits that it was she who reached out to touch his robes. Her situation is similarly desperate. The gospel writer Mark underscores the seriousness of her case by telling us that not only had she been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, she had “endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse”! Unlike Jairus, the man whose daughter was gravely ill, she has no high social standing. Her disease has impoverished her and isolated her; anyone coming into contact with her would have been rendered ritually impure. For twelve years she had been in pain physically and ostracized socially! It is no wonder that she took the risk she did in reaching out to touch the man of God.
Matthew 7:6, 12-14
Many of you may know that for almost the entire fifty days of Easter, I was home in Tennessee visiting and caring for my ailing mother who passed away on May 8th. As you can imagine, this time with my mom was precious, bittersweet, and we shared many reminiscences of our relationship throughout the years, but especially from my youth. One such instance was when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was at my friend Patrick’s house, which had a large lot behind it consisting of hills made from the excavation of red clay dirt for the future building of new homes. We had had a lot of rain that week and at the bottom of these clay dirt hills were big puddles of water. Thinking they looked refreshing, Patrick and I stripped down to our underwear and proceeded to roll down the clay mud hills landing in the puddles with a big splash. It was a lot of fun! We did this over and over again until I heard my mom calling me to supper in the distance.
Our frolicking in the clay puddles had seemed like such a good idea at the time that I could not have predicted my mother’s dismay when I showed up in the house wearing nothing but my soaked, red clay-stained tighty-whities, which would never again be white. (Mind you, not only did I walk home that way, two streets over and through several neighbors’ yards, but we had dinner guests that evening). As I plead my case before my agitated mother I said, “Well, Patrick did it first!” And we have all heard the retort that I remember mom using that evening: “If Patrick jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” As a young boy from the heart of Appalachia, I’m not sure I knew very much at that time about the Brooklyn Bridge, but I imagined if there was a red clay puddle at the bottom, then yes, absolutely!
Our gospel lesson from Matthew this evening is a portion of what is known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.’ Most of us will be familiar with the Beatitudes which begin this famous sermon (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who morn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc.)[i] This sermon is given in a rabbinic tradition that takes aspects of the law and expounds upon them in order to help people realize that to which they have been called. And Jesus covers a lot of ground during this time of teaching. What most caught my eye was Jesus’ admonition to ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easythat leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’
Jesus’ teaching here was about the discernment of right of wrong which would not always be clear based on popular schools of thought. Jesus used the actions of the religious leaders of his day to prove the point. In his line of fire were the Pharisees, an influential sect within Judaism who were known for their personal piety and their insistence that Jews should observe all laws of the Torah which included 248 prescriptions and 365 proscriptions—that is “you shall’s” and “you shall not’s,” respectively.[ii] The Pharisees spent their lives learning the law and enforcing it to the best of their abilities in order to keep Israel a holy nation. And Jesus certainly did not disagree with their zeal. Just two chapters earlier at the beginning of this sermon Jesus affirms his commitment to the law saying, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’[iii]
The Matthean community from which Matthew’s gospel originates, was one of Jewish origin and identity who were following ‘the Way’ that Jesus had preached. Out of their context of Judaism, they were concerned about matters of correct procedure, the main conundrum being: were they as apostles to be conservators or liberators? Were they to be conservators of the Jewish heritage and indoctrinate new converts to Jesus Christ back into the faith of the chosen people, orwere they to be liberators, seeing their experience of Jesus Christ as an invitation into the future, the coming kingdom of God and the gift of salvation and liberation for all. Which was it?[iv]
Jesus message which he reiterated over and over was that holiness was not determined by being set apart as morally superior to others but rather by exhibiting the highest attribute of God, what was known in Hebrew as chesed, which is translated as loving-kindness or compassion.[v] The Law was important but it had to be kept in the spirit of chesed, which is why later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus responds to a Pharisee’s question this way: When he was asked which commandment in the law is greatest he responded predictably: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is a quote from Deuteronomy and is part of the Shema, the primary creed in Judaism which begins every service.[vi]
But Jesus throws in a second which he says is like the first. What could be equal to loving God with every fiber of your being? Jesus uses a line from the Holiness Code in Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The verse from Leviticus ends with the statement, “I am the Lord.”[vii] In other words, this is my essence, who I am. By keeping this law you will be set apart as my own. “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Jesus doesn’t negate any other part of the Law, but rather says on these two, love of God and love of neighbor, hang all the law and the prophets. In keeping the Law you must meld it with the spirit of Chesed: loving-kindness or compassion; you might even say ‘mercy.’
But as nice is all this sounds, Jesus’ point in the gospel we heard this evening is that the work of ‘chesed’ is not an easy walk in the park and it normally goes against the stream of popular thought. Love of God can only be accomplished by committing to the equally large task of love of neighbor as self. And I believe that this task is as big and perhaps daunting today as it was in Jesus’ day. We live in virtual society where social media that has promised to bring us together through technology and convenience is actually driving us apart. A couple of years ago I remember seeing an advertisement while waiting on the T to arrive for GrubHub, a popular food delivery service. I was so startled by its message that I took a picture of the sign that read: ‘Say hello to ordering food online, and say goodbye to saying hello into a phone.’[viii] In other words, why be inconvenienced by the complexity and difficulty of human interaction? It is this loss of personal connection that I believe has led us to a place of extreme isolation at a time where connection, understanding, compassion, kindness, and even mercy are so desperately needed. But let’s face it, chesed is not easy. This narrow way that leads to life takes the will and intention of commitment, the assent to experiencing inconvenience, the expectation of messiness, and the understanding that it will cost us all something, both individually and communally. How can we begin to actively engage in the work of chesed?
The first point Jesus makes in his summary of the Law begins with the word “You.” You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Why? Because that is why we were created. We were created in love for the sake of relationship with God, and in the image of God with the capacity to mirror the same love that is His essence, chesed. I know that one of my greatest challenges in my life is to see myself as one of God’s beloved, to see His image in myself. All too often, I’ve been my greatest critic and have done more to separate myself from God’s love than to embrace it. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson said, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation[ix] unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”[x] This is the holiness we’re called to. If you’re having trouble seeing yourself as God’s beloved, you may want pray using the verse from Psalm 26: “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.”[xi] You are that abiding place!
Once we recognize our interconnectedness with God and His creation vertically, then I think we can the move to love of neighbor in the horizontal. This love of neighbor is of the same essence as the love of God, chesed. Our neighbors are a testimony to the vast diversity of God. To reject this diversity is to reject aspects of the living God in our midst. We cannot say, “I have no need of you.” We can only have relationship by actively and intentionally engaging our neighbors, especially the ones who challenge us. We must have the resolve to engage these neighbors not by reproving them for their wrong thought, but by actively listening to them and searching for the common ground where we can then begin to build a foundation. Sometimes the only common ground we may be able to find is that place at the altar where we all acknowledge our neediness by putting our hands together and stretching them out to receive sustenance from the one who is the essence of chesed: our kind, compassionate, merciful God who gave us Jesus his son as the shepherd leading us to the narrow gate that leads to life abundant.
I do not remember being punished by my mom for my romp in the muddy, clay-filled pools of water with Patrick, my cohort in crime. Even though I was instructed on ‘correct’ behavior, I believe my mom knew that in my incorrect decision of following Patrick’s actions (because of course her son would never lead anyone astray), I was just a young boy celebrating life and learning its lessons. She was a model of chesed, loving kindness and compassion. And I miss her! Amen
[ii]Harrington, Daniel, ed. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1991. Print.
[v]Winters, Charles L., ed. Education for Ministry, Year Two: New Testament. Sewanee: The University of the South. 1977. Print.
[ix]The doctrine of the incarnation affirms that the eternal Son of God took human flesh from His human mother and that the historical Christ is at once fully God and fully man. (From the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church).
[x]The Final Passover, Vol. 2, p. 402
Listen for a moment and think carefully about whether you have had an experience parallel to any of the following:
The experience of a social worker as she counsels an opioid addict struggling to extricate himself from a destructive network of peer relationships;
The experience of a teacher giving hours of help after class to a student with special learning needs or a toxic home environment, neither of which the school system seems concerned about;
The experience of a doctor or nurse spending the time necessary to really listen to a patient’s needs, whilst attempting to navigate a broken medical insurance system;
The experience of a psychologist working with a transgender prison inmate who is verbally and physically abused by fellow inmates and guards, but whose gender identity is unrecognized by the prison system.
Think for a moment of the images of Jesus you have seen over the years. Jesus, standing with arms stretched out in welcome, radiating gentleness and peace. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, with a lamb resting contentedly on his shoulders. Jesus, seated, tenderly welcoming little children to come near to him. These images show us a Jesus who is full of compassion, the One who reveals to us a God of compassion, mercy and love.