Matthew 15.1-2, 10-14
Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ’Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’
Human beings are creatures of habit. We do not like changes in our routines. We live by our diaries, whether they are written down or not. We like to have certainty in how our lives are going to move on from moment to moment. This need for certainty is as much a part of our spiritual life as it is the mainstay of our lives in the wider world. There is, of course, a problem in this craving for certainty and stability … it has very little to do with the life of Christian discipleship, it removes our willingness to be ‘surprised by God’.
In today’s reading the Pharisees and scribes, the religious experts of Judaism, are questioning Jesus about the behaviour of his disciples. They are criticizing them for not observing the minutiae of the religious law. Unfortunately, their criticism is rooted in the strict observance of a man-made version of God’s law. Over a very long period of time, the received word of God was transformed into something by which one group of ‘experts’ could exercise authority over others. As the ‘law’ became entrenched in Jewish life, so the people of Israel became increasingly distanced from God. That is exactly where so many find themselves in their lives today. A major facet of Jewish law revolved around the food they ate. Jesus dismisses this by turning the teaching on its head. We hear the Good News of Jesus Christ taught in many ways as we journey through our lives as Christians. That Good News becomes part of our spiritual DNA. Many of us can quote long passages of Christian teaching but, in our reading today, we are being challenged to answer the question: ‘What difference does it make to the way we live our lives?’
We are part of God’s wondrous creation. Everything we see in this world was created by God and, what is more, every single human being we encounter was created in God’s own image. So, why do some people feel that they are ‘better’ than others when it comes to living a life of true faith? Why, when we try to engage with some church communities, do we feel like strangers … different, looked down upon, unwelcome? The basis for those feelings of rejection is rooted in the tendency of some to manipulate the teachings of Jesus Christ into a weapon with which to control and criticize others … just like the Pharisees and scribes.
Today we are being called to set aside our certainty that we are the only ones who truly understand what it means to be a Christian. We are being called to open our hearts and minds to the God-given gifts of others, even when those gifts jar with our self-created religious sensibilities. We are called to go back to basics, to open our bibles and to seek the word of God, rather than the folk law of church membership. Let us pray for the strength to honour and respect all that God does for us, even if it means accepting those whose outward appearance offends the social niceties we would like to observe.