Our Gospel lesson for this morning has so much going on. Like way too much for me to talk about if we want to be out of here before lunch. But there is one thing that particularly sticks out to me and struck me when I reflected on this text this week: it is defiling to not wash your hands.
This morning in our text we run into some issues of “law” with the Pharisees. Jewish traditions have a series of laws to follow to make someone “clean” or “unclean” and the pharisees were particularly obsessed with these laws known as purity laws, the things that “defile” you. You see, to them, following these laws is what makes you closer or “right” with God.
In the last few months, our interactions with the world around us has changed so much in terms of “clean” and “unclean”. 5 months ago, if you were to walk down the sidewalk and someone was coming towards you and then they abruptly crossed to the other side of the street so they didn’t have to walk by you, that was rude. Like, is there something with me? And now, it's a courtesy. It’s an act of kindness.
5 months ago, if you shook someone’s hand and then immediately pulled out your hand sanitizer, it was rude. And now, it's the behavior that is expected from both parties. ACTUALLY, the behavior that is expected is not to touch each other at all.
It’s amazing how as we move through time how these laws, ideas, what is right or good, and what is expected can change so drastically.
So 2,000 years ago, Jesus is facing some heat from the other leaders for not doing things the “right” way, the “traditional” way. What happens in the verses before our lectionary is the Pharisees and Scribes, aka the Jewish equivalent to like pastors and bishops in a slightly different denomination than Jesus, are coming at him for not focusing on these purity laws.
Many of these laws are based on old testament scripture in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and many of them serve a very practical and real purpose in the lives of ancient Jews. Like washing your hands before you eat. Which foods to mix together or not, or foods just not to eat at all.
But, these laws are not the be all end all to our faith. That is what Jesus is challenging here, he’s saying, ummm, God isn’t going to smite you if you don’t wash your hands before you eat. That’s not what is important to God. You should do it because it's sanitary, but your salvation is not at stake.
Their religion is practiced by focusing on the rules, but I don’t want to pick on Judaism here, Christianity is also reallyyyyyyy good at focusing on rules and who is in and who is out based on these created sets of “purity” rules.
Sometimes I think that our Christian ancestors really didn’t get it and created the exact same kind of system that Jesus was attempting to abolish in the first place. Because Jesus was like, “heal people here, love these outcasts here, give money to the poor here, heal this person over there.” And somehow the church heard, “do this to be right and if you do that you are wrong. The end.”
And over the course of Christian history we have carried this too far. Think about how many different Christian denominations there are, all of whom broke apart from one another at some point in the last 1500 years because they either broke the rules and decided they didn’t agree with those rules and so they created their own.
And more and more people leave all of these denominations every single day because it’s not about love and grace and the mercy shown through Christ, it’s about the rules.
Jesus is trying to put this in perspective for the listeners. God cares about what your impact on this world is. You can wash our hands all day long but it means nothing if you use those clean hands to lie, cheat, steal, and kill.
So the Hobbit movies are on Hulu live right now and I’ve only seen them once so I started to dive back in for a rewatch. I saw them for the first time last year when I accidentally mentioned to my friend Brian that I had never seen them, and he found that unacceptable so there we were back then committed to a three movie series in one sitting. I had never read the books so last year this was a whole new adventure for me.
A brief recap of the first two movies, a bunch of dwarves used to live in this mountain where they had a really cool city and a bunch of gold. A dragon comes and claims the mountain and the gold for himself either killing or displacing all of the dwarves. A bunch of years later, a group of dwarves meet up with a wizard who agrees to help them take back their mountain and they employ a hobbit for this journey because he’s tiny and quiet and they want him to steal this magical stone from under the dragon so they can rightfully reclaim the mountain and it's treasure. The first two movies are them just getting to the mountain.
At the very beginning of the third movie they finally slay the dragon and reclaim the mountain.
Now, a bunch of other races, such as elves, men, and orcs, also want to take over the treasure in the mountain so they come with armies, as well as, the rest of the dwarf army. And the really big bad orc guy’s name is “Azog the defiler.” (See, I don’t even have to try, the Holy Spirit threw me a bone this week and the sermon writes itself!)
At this point in our theatrical journey, I just can't. At this point in my first viewing, I paused the movie and looked over at Brian and said, “wait wait wait a minute, is the entire premise of this movie everyone killing each other over the gold?”
He looked back at me and said, “people kill each other in this world every day for far less.”
Matthew 15 again: “But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (Matthew 15:15-20)
The new commandment that Jesus leaves us with in the gospel is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus is trying to tell the pharisees that there is no point being clean, unclean, this kind of Jew or that kind of Jew, if you don’t treat each other and yourself with respect and love.
That God is indeed calling us to be kind, to respect and care for each other. Or at the very least don’t do anything bad to one another.
We are human. And we all have the capacity for this kind of destruction of both ourselves and others. We all stumble and fall short of this commandment and make mistakes. And more mistakes. We are human.
We are also beloved children of God and there is grace for that.
To illustrate what Jesus is getting at here in our lectionary text with one more mountain and battle, I want to share with you this song that we used to sing at church camp at the camp that I grew up at. It was sung so many times at my camp growing up that it got put on a 2 times a week limit one summer. It’s called One Tin Soldier, it goes:
Listen people to a story
That was written long ago,
'bout a kingdom on a mountain
And the valley folks below.
On the mountain was a treasure
Buried deep beneath a stone,
And the valley people swore
They'd have it for their very own.
So the people of the valley
Sent a message up the hill,
Asking for the buried treasure
Tons of gold for which they'd kill.
Came the answer from the kingdom,
With our brothers we will share,
All the riches of the mountain,
All the treasure buried there.
Now the valley cried with anger,
Mount your horses, draw your swords
And they killed the mountain people,
So they won their just rewards
Now they stood before the treasure
On the mountain dark and red
Turned the stone and looked beneath it
Peace on earth, was all it said.
Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
Go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of heaven,
You can justify it in the end.
There won't be any trumpets blowing,
Come the judgment day,
On the bloody morning after
One tin soldier rides away.
Whether you always remember to wash your hands or not, God is not going to cast you out. Though in 2020 it's probably best if you do. But Jesus tells us what God is asking of us and what not to do. It’s that simple.
Love God, love others, and what I think gets forgotten sometimes, love yourself. Because you are, and we all are, beloved children of God.