Man-made Rules and God’s Commandments
or ‘Are you hiding behind your mask?’
How are you getting on with wearing a mask when, and if, you go on public transport, to the shops, doctors, hairdresser or church building? I think most of us are accepting it as part of the new normal, although it is annoying when your glasses steam up and tricky when you can’t gauge someone’s facial expression or read their lips. Sometimes I have forgotten to take my mask with me when I go out, and have had to go back to get it; this week, having driven all the way to Leicester without one, I had to improvise with a cloth bag I keep in my handbag, so that I could collect my vacuum cleaner that had been serviced. Now you might be wondering what all this has to do with today’s Gospel reading, so let us take another look at the two episodes depicted.
At the beginning of Chapter 15 in Matthew’s account, the bit before where our reading started, Jesus was gaining in reputation as he travelled around Galilee, teaching and performing miracles. The Scribes and Pharisees were concerned about the effect he was having and so a group of them travelled nearly 70 miles from Jerusalem to ‘Hicksville’ Galilee with the express purpose of checking him out and to undermine his popularity. Now these were scholarly men, well trained in the intricacies of their laws and traditions: rules which expanded the Law as given in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). They had ritual handwashing rules, meant principally for the priests who served in the Temple, but they wanted to apply these to Jesus’ disciples before they had a meal. I don’t suppose for a moment that the disciples ate with mucky hands, although they probably weren’t familiar with our 20s handwashing rule, but there is a difference between ritual cleansing and handwashing for hygiene. Jesus rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees for their complicated rules, that only they could understand, when the clear simplicity of God’s Laws in the Ten Commandments was quite sufficient. Do you find yourself getting confused about some of our ‘coming out of lockdown rules’? There are so many, sometimes contradictory regulations, that it is not surprising that people like the comedian Matt Lucas have done spoof briefings on YouTube. Jesus called the Scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, because they were hiding behind their cumbersome traditions. It is interesting that the word hypocrite derives from the Greek, meaning actor. When the ancient Greeks put on their plays, the actors used to wear masks to portray different characters or different moods. It can be so easy for us to hide behind our masks, real or metaphorical, to pretend we are someone other than who we are; but God is not fooled because He knows our hearts.
The dietary laws helped the Jews to create a sense of a separate people, which was important for their sense of identity. When Matthew wrote his gospel, it was for a church audience who were struggling with the place of Jewish Laws within the life of their community - a church which was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus explained to his disciples that the food laws were not as important as the state of their hearts. Today’s emphasis on washing hands helps us to keep infection at bay, but what about the infection in our hearts? Jesus listed what can come out from our hearts: evil intentions, murder, adultery, promiscuity, theft, false witness, slander - each of these come from the 6th to the 9th of the Ten Commandments. These are sins that affect our relationships and they are issues that can damage the church. Our obligation to God is not satisfied by religious ritual, but by our relationship with God and each other. We were born with unclean hearts – only Jesus can change us from the inside out, giving us new hearts and lives.
After the hostilities of these encounters by Galilee, Jesus travelled over 25 miles north to the border district of Tyre and Sidon, where he would inevitably meet Gentile people. The Canaanite woman who came to him used the Jewish form of address for the Messiah. This outsider, and a woman at that, showed more reverence to Jesus and recognition of who He was than any of the Jewish people in the previous episode. It seems odd that Jesus ignored her at first, but he knew that he was sent to the Jews first and then the Gentiles. Perhaps he wanted to see if she would persist in asking for his help for herself and her daughter. The disciples thought she was being a bit of a nuisance because she was disturbing them with her shouting out, but she wasn’t going to let anyone discourage her. Next, she knelt in front of Jesus and again asked him for his help. She recognised the Kingship of Jesus, his power and his authority. Jesus referred to her as a dog in reply, which sounds shocking and derisive, but he meant a pet dog that is allowed in the same room as the family when they are eating. Quick as a flash, she replied that even pet dogs get some of the crumbs from the table. Surely there would be some blessing left over for a Gentile woman. Jesus was delighted with her faith, more than he had recently witnessed elsewhere. She was rewarded for her persistence and her daughter was healed instantly. This healing was an indication that God’s favour would, indeed, extend to the Gentiles.
In conclusion then, how can we apply all of this to ourselves? The church is, and has been, entering new territory. In recent months, previous boundaries have been broken or altered and new ways of being church are being discovered. Our God is in the unsettling business and we have been shaken and stirred, unsure of what the future holds. Today we have heard that Jesus meets with people on the margins, the outsiders, granting them not just a crumb, but a place at the table. I will leave you with four questions:
• Are we willing to open our hearts to the ‘outsiders’ in our local community, the people on the borders?
• Do we have cumbersome traditions or unrealistic expectations of people who might come to the church?
• Do we hide behind a mask of religion, when Jesus wants to renew our hearts and lives?
• Are we people of faith, who persist in prayer, obey God’s commandments and recognise Jesus as King over our lives?