I remember, nearly a decade ago, watching a video on YouTube. In the video, the hosts of the show, consistent with their political leanings, filmed their infiltration of an environmentalist rally. There, they spoke with attendees and asked for signatures on their petition to ban a purportedly dangerous chemical. This chemical was largely unregulated, had been detected in our water supply along with countless food items, and could cause death within minutes if inhaled in sufficient quantities. The chemical in question was described with the scary-sounding name, “dihydrogen monoxide.” You might know it better by its chemical formula: H2O. Largely unregulated, in our food and water, it can cause death if inhaled in sufficient quantities, it was water.
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.
Two things we hear from Jesus in this Gospel lesson are eye opening. For one, Jesus relentlessly shares meals with notorious “sinners.” Sitting at table with someone, sharing a meal, is a “socially intimate” experience. There’s a sameness between everyone at the table: the same setting, at the same time, eating the same food, feeding the same needs we all have. Jesus sits at table with “sinners and tax collectors,” which is code language for the dregs of society, with whom Jesus is very glad to share a meal and to share life. (If you are sometimes a member of the dregs, welcome home.) And then Jesus alludes to his like a physician: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus presumes we are unwell. We are not fine and dandy, thank you. We are unwell, Jesus presumes. There’s something about our own life that is significantly damaged, broken, unmanageable, scarred, fearful, or traumatized that needs healing. We’ll need the healing care of Jesus, the physician, for the rest of our life. Our need is that great. Jesus presumes this.
Secondly, Jesus’ taking on the role of physician tells us about the nature of God’s judgment. We are unwell. We cannot heal ourselves. We go to a physician, first to receive a diagnosis. A diagnosis is a judgment. A diagnosis is a physician’s judgment based on what we report and what the physician sees, and hears, and feels in his or her examination of us. The physician draws on their training and experience to determine that this is what is wrong with you, in their judgment. And then you would want your physician to prescribe some treatment that will enable your healing and wholeness. In their judgment, this remedy will save you. This remedy will be a salve to your woundedness. And you would also have every hope – given that you are sick and therefore quite vulnerable, perhaps even fearful or ashamed – that your physician would treat you in a kind and merciful way. Jesus is the Great Physician, a great one indeed.
Saint John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish friar, said that, in the end, we will be judged by God. And God’s judgment will be a judgment of love.[i]
[i]Saint John of the Cross, OCarm (1542-1591), was a Spanish mystic, and Carmelite friar and a priest.
There was a time before the web of language was woven
before the rope of words
before symbols, those fine, strong threads, were spun –
it was long, long ago, but you remember.
Arouse your ancient memory and inward beholding,
You Homo Sapiens, You Wise One, to behold:
Before the web of language, the rope of words or the thread of symbols, fine and
strong, there simply was the bare Thingness of the Thing that bears the name “Fire.”
Stoke the embers of recognition, burning deep in our primordial night.
Unforgettably, in our bones, the barest imagination of it
warms fingertips, summons blood, quiets the mind, enfolds the gaze…
or prepares the legs to flee.
But now, You Child of God, search deeper, touch the bedrock of being, and
recollect another Fire:
Before smoke or ash or kindling
Before the first hearth or altar
Before the first offering
Before pure and impure
there was a Fire you cannot see or touch but that you are made to long for.
Before wrath or fear –
Before mercy or love –
Before death or judgment or heaven or hell –
Before the beginning and after the end: there was this Fire,
The Unquenchable Fire in the Heart of God,
a God Who is Love.
I honestly have a lot of trouble hearing today’s passage from Luke’s gospel with anything like fresh ears or an open heart. To be more precise, it is verse five that makes me want to stop listening, cross my arms, and scowl: “Wherever they do not welcome you, leave that town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
That temptation to scowl has a backstory. Plenty of Christians rely on this verse and its companion texts in Mark and Matthew as a way of dismissing non-believers or anathematizing fellow Christians with differing views or practices. When aggressive efforts to evangelize yield no fruit or when believers fail to see how they have strayed from the straight and narrow path, these Christians are licensed to deploy a common, ancient Near Eastern practice – shaking the dust from their feet – as they see fit, in their own contemporary, interpretive warfare. It is a clean and tidy way of making a conversation partner into an opponent. It says, “I’m right, and God is my witness. You’re wrong, and I hope you reconsider.” End of story.
If you have been on the receiving end of such foot-shaking (whether literal or figurative) you will know how it feels to be the object of a unique and pungent blend of condescension, self-righteousness, and false pity. Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I can say with confidence that this technique is excellent at one thing: producing atheists.
So to hear these words spoken by Jesus, my Savior, my beloved, my Lord and my God, I must get out the steel wool. I must strip and scrub all the interpretive detritus from my memory and listen. I must listen long, listen deeply, and with the utmost humility.
Here are some things I think I hear:
Not every command of Jesus to his followers in every instance recorded in the Gospels applies to you and to me. The Resurrection, the Ascension, and the birth of the Church at Pentecost have radically altered our relationship with the kingdom and its requirements of Love. It is indeed beautiful and awesome to hear about the radical trust of the apostles, as they set out with only the clothing on their backs and the power and authority of their Master gleaming in their eyes. But Luke was well aware even by his own time that slavish duplication of the earliest methods of spreading the gospel would be reductionist and simplistic. Scholar François Bovon identifies some core aspects of Christian missionary practice at the center of Luke’s vision: receiving power and authority from the Lord; preaching and healing; the inevitable experiences of both acceptance and rejection; a hospitable house as the center of mission; and the meeting of resistance with perseverance by shaking off the dust. For Luke, these are practices enjoined upon all Christians, before or after Easter.[i] But it is up to us to discover the precise contours of those practices in our lives and our communities.
So if shaking off the dust can be said to apply to us, what might that look and feel like?
Bovon notes that, in its ancient Near Eastern context, the symbolic, non-verbal gesture of shaking dust from one’s feet did not express anger or a desire for revenge, nor was it a curse on an opponent or a claim of triumph over an enemy. It did soberly express the experience of a rupture or divide in a relationship. In Luke’s gospel, it constitutes a “testimony about the other,” rather than a “testimony against the other.”[ii] It could be seen as a non-verbal story intended primarily for God, a narrative enactment of the reality that Love cannot force itself on others. It could be seen as a way of entrusting another to God when he or she, for whatever reason, is unable to accept God’s offer of Love from us personally.
So, shaking off my interpretive baggage, I hear several humbling reminders in Jesus’s injunction to the apostles to shake the dust from their feet. I hear the crucified and risen Christ, covered with the dust of the world for our sake, saying:
Shake off the illusion that you are responsible for meeting the needs of every living creature. Only God knows what each creature truly needs, and will use your help when and as God sees fit. Shake off the need for universal acceptance. Shake off the pain when the Gospel you have to offer is rejected. Shake off the presumption that you have arrived at the correct interpretation of my vast and life-giving Word. Shake off the dust as you rise from the tomb with me. And whatever you do or don’t do with your dusty feet, keep reaching out your hands in Love.
[i]Francois Bovon. Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Hermeneia Series. c. 2002, Fortress Press. Pgs.342-344.
[ii]Ibid, p. 346.
Some years ago I was sharing a conversation with my spiritual director, who was a seasoned Jesuit priest. He had risen in the ranks of leadership over the decades and, to me, was a treasury of wisdom. Reflecting on his own years in the Society of Jesus, he said to me: “Be very kind to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet these same people on your way down.” There is a word for this, a word on which we should be on good speaking terms. That word is “humility.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond the minions who otherwise surround us. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. Humus is formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material in the ground. Humility is composted from leading a well-cultivated life. I’ll come back to that.
Jesus navigated life with humility. The ancient prophecies that had anticipated the coming Messiah predicted the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”[i]Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter this kingdom of God. He says to enter “as a little child.[ii] And Jesus gives the warning, “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”[iii]Jesus was critical of those who trumpet and parade their piety, their purity, their generosity, their grandiosity, their accomplishments from the grandstand. Rather Jesus commends us to live out our lives in a very unostentatious, uncalculated way, not even letting our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing. This is the grace of humility.
“Do you want us to go and gather them?” He replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” O Lord of hosts, * happy are they who trust in you.
This may only be true for me, but my guess is that somewhere along the way we’ve all known a very particular kind of longing: a longing to be, in the words of Fr. Basil Maturin, “as though [we] had never sinned,”—a “longing of the heart… at any cost to pluck up the tares which have been left to grow so long.” This morning Jesus invites us into another agricultural parable of the Kingdom; and unlike the parable of the sower, which we hear in the same chapter of Matthew’s gospel, this one draws us into the uneasy fields of yielding—yielding to God’s wisdom alone. As we tread upon the soil of this parable, let us keep the words of Our Lady near at hand: be it unto me according to your word.
In her short story Revelation, published in 1965, Flannery O’ Connor offers the reader a detailed psychological and spiritual portrait of a character named Ruby Turpin. Mrs. Turpin is a “respectable, hard-working, church-going woman,” white, middle class, and Southern. The story is set in the cramped squalor of a doctor’s waiting room, where an array of white characters – elderly and young, well-to-do and poor – are waiting to see the doctor. The omniscient narrator gives us a particularly intimate portrait of the thoughts that run through Mrs. Turpin’s head and heart, revealing an elaborate, personal hierarchy of class, race, and social status. As the story unfolds, Mrs. Turpin’s interior judgments roil and seethe. The casual conversation she makes with other patients slowly reveals the painful web of classism and racism in which they are all unconsciously enmeshed. And Mrs. Turpin’s running, interior dialogue with Jesus reveals the ways that she uses prayer to validate her prejudice, thanking Jesus for placing her exactly where she is and making her who she is and not like the others she has deemed inferior.
This parable of weeds and wheat, a parable unique to Matthew’s gospel, has a long history of interpretation from the pulpit in American religion. Much of it is overtly self-congratulatory, encouraging faith leaders and congregations to uncritically self-identify as faithful stalks of wheat – to say, in the words of Jeremiah, “We are safe!” The course of action in the Christian life then becomes simply to wait for the harvest, but in a way that presumes to know how the story will end. In the meantime, presuming to identify all the weeds in the neighborhood seems to become a common pastime. In this country, it is hard to overestimate the damage such interpretation of the Gospel is causing between Christians and atheists in particular. Indeed, many people my age or younger who identify with no faith tradition and who know little about Christianity are unlikely to take an interest if they perceive Christians to be self-righteously, obsessively concerned with the behavior of others. If you’ve already been identified as a weed – or have close friends who are weeds – is joining the “wheat” really all that appealing?
This evening is the first of a three-part Advent sermon series we have entitled “Ero Cras,” which is a Latin acrostic translated “Tomorrow, I [that is, Jesus Christ] will be there [that is, there for you].”[i] Following the liturgy on these three Tuesday evenings we invite all of you in the congregation to join us for a soup supper, and with opportunity to ask questions of the evening’s preacher. These next two Tuesdays in Advent, the preacher’s focus will be “Hope” and then, “Desire and Longing.” This evening my focus is “Judgment and Salvation.”