It was the little child, asking his innocent question about why the Emperor was naked, who pulled everyone up short and helped them to really look at the situation. Similarly it was Jesus who made the comments and asked the questions that helped to pinpoint where the emphasis of the Jewish religion had gone wrong. If we don’t look carefully at ourselves and what we do, we can so easily get things wrong. Mistakes were by no means confined to first century Pharisees!
The readings at the Sunday noon service were Psalm 15, James 1:17-end, Mark 7: 1-8, 14, 15, 21-23. The reflection follows:
A new wife was proudly beginning to cook the first Sunday dinner of her married life. She was determined to do the very best she could, and be at least as good a cook as her mother had been. Sunday dinner had been a great tradition in her family and she wanted to continue it.
All the shopping had been completed, with every ingredient carefully selected. The oven was hot and the joint of meat was the first item to be dealt with. Carefully unwrapping it, the young woman placed it on a chopping board and cut off about two centimetres of the joint before placing it in the roasting tin and putting it in the oven. Her husband watched, puzzled. He had seen his mother cook a joint of meat before and had never seen a slice cut off beforehand. He wanted to be encouraging to his wife and so asked her what special secret this was to make the meal even better. The inquiry stopped the wife in her tracks. She had no idea what cutting this slice off was supposed to achieve. She simply knew that that is what she had always observed her mother doing.
Intrigued by now, she decided to phone her mother to check what happened by cutting a piece of the joint off. Unfortunately her mother was no help. ‘Your Grandma used to do it when I lived at home, so I’ve always done it that way. I’ve no idea why.’ The mystery was deepening and so mother promised to ring Grandma. When Grandma was asked she burst into laughter. She explained that her husband was a butcher and always brought a very big piece of meat home for the weekend meal, big enough to be used cold on at least a couple of other days. The trouble was that her roasting tin never seemed quite large enough, so she always had to cut a slice off to make it fit!
What had set out as a practical solution to an immediate problem had, within two generations, become THE way to do things, without any thought being given to why it was the right thing to do. It was the innocent question of a new husband which stopped this tradition in its tracks before it got passed on to yet another generation.
Something very similar had happened to the Jews. It really is quite amazing to see just how much care God had taken of the people he had called to be his own. 3,500 years before the concept of germs causing diseases was discovered, God was helping his people to live in the light of that fact. He gave rules for personal hygiene which worked even though they were not understood.
The people were told to bury human waste outside the area where they lived. During the black death, Jews who followed this rule survived better than others. Following this rule protects from dysentery, cholera and E. coli also. Contaminated cloth was to be washed to remove any fungus, and disposed of if the fungus did not disappear. Anyone touching such things had to wash their hands. Anyone with bodily discharges was classed as unclean as were those who touched them. Washing hands was a precaution against cross infection. Only in the last 100 years has this been understood by medical science. Conditions like leprosy were looked out for carefully and a system of quarantine used to protect others, very much like today’s isolation wards with a sign on the door replacing the shout of ‘Unclean, unclean’. Similarly contact with the dead was treated seriously.
When food and water was considered, the protection of the source of drinking water was very important. No one was allowed to drink from a water source where a carcass of an animal had been found unless the water was running and so could carry away the infection. If food and water came into contact with a dead animal or an infected person it was also declared unclean. Foods that are particularly prone to giving food poisoning were forbidden to the Jews.
These laws were given to promote the health and well being of the Jewish people. They served a good purpose and actually marked them out from the peoples around them who didn’t follow the laws. It was right to pass these laws on for the continued protection of the people but in the process the laws became more important than their purpose. The Pharisees thought that being meticulous about being law-abiding made them holy. If by being holy we mean being different, set apart, then in some ways they were right. Unfortunately they had put the emphasis in the wrong place.
It is so much easier to follow the rules about washing hands, unclean people and items etc, than it is to look inside to see what our internal state is. It’s far simpler to concentrate on the externals and think we have done enough.
Jesus is a bit like the new young husband, or perhaps the child in the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. He asks the obvious questions which no one is actually thinking about and in so doing he gets to the heart of the matter. He points out that having clean hands and clean pots and pans does not ensure a clean life. Inside a person could be seething with lust, covetousness, murderous thoughts, deceit and so on. We know that God looks at the heart not at the outside of a person, the public image that we like to show to the world.
James picks up the idea of image in his letter. He talks about looking in the mirror to see ourselves. Now, I have to admit that mirrors and I do not have a good relationship. I make no secret of the fact that my avatar, though exhibiting some similarities to my RL person, is aspirational. Sadly I couldn’t take her with me when I went in May with my daughter to find the appropriate outfit for the mother of the bride. Standing in the changing room of the department store, there was no escape from the mirror which covered one wall and revealed ever bulge in the bright white light of the room. I have to say I was very glad to find myself covered up by the outfit we finally chose.
It would have been really nice if I could have chosen to look in one of those mirrors you find in an old fashioned Hall of Mirrors at a fairground. Some of them make you look very ugly, with a squashed head, short legs, bulging middle and so on. However, there would surely have been one to give me an hourglass figure and no bulges in the wrong places!
James tells us to look into the law of God as into a mirror and not to do as I did, and forget as soon as possible what we look like. It’s not much fun looking in such a mirror. Every imperfection shows, ones we know about and ones we were unaware of. But James calls the law, the law of liberty. It is not intended to enslave and paralyse us but to free us, to help us to be as God intended. The freedom only comes, though, if we actually do what the law says, rather than just reading it and taking no notice. James doesn’t pretend it’s easy; he warns us that we have to persevere. As a result of that perseverance we will be blessed.
The psalm says the same. The ones who can dwell in close communion with God, who will never fall, are those who do right; who speak the truth; who do no evil and are not scornful; who honour the true followers of God and not the wicked; who keep their word whatever it costs; who deal fairly with money.
So you and I need to peer intently into this mirror, the Law, and let the image of it burn onto our memories so that it guides our every step. I have a feeling we will trip up many times but at least we’ll be travelling in the right direction.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor