Matthew 15: 10-20
I know a lot of people find the Orbit Gum commercials annoying, but I confess that sometimes they make me laugh. My favorite is the one where a woman charges into a man’s office and accuses him and another woman of infidelity. Fierce name calling ensues, but they are calling each other funny names like Cootie Queen and Stinky McStinkface. Eventually the entirely clean young spokesperson for the gum shows up asking, “Got a dirty mouth? Clean it up.” Apparently chewing Orbit Gum somehow cleans your mouth but I have serious doubt about its ability to clean up your language.
Still, no one wants a dirty mouth do they? A lot of people have dirty mouths. People we know. People sitting right here among us. Of course there is more than one way to have a dirty mouth. The language we use. The oral hygiene we practice. But we don’t consider the food we eat to make us or any part of us dirty or unclean.
Now if we consult with the Bible we will find a lot of verses in Leviticus about what we eat. Foods that will or won’t give us a dirty mouth. These chapters are called the Purity Code or the Holiness Code. It’s the same thing. Some foods were allowed and others were not. Cows and sheep or goats were acceptable. Pigs, shrimp, and camels were not.
There is no reason given in the Bible for why these laws were enacted. It was not about health benefits. Some people think it was about lack of refrigeration or preservatives. No, that’s not why it was fine to eat a hamburger, but not a piece of bacon. They knew the code wasn’t about their health. They understood it to be a set of rules with which they could show their obedience to God.
Every society has rules. The Jews believed their rules came directly from God. Here in the south we believe that those rules came from our grandmothers. Actually they came from even farther back than that. Our rules came from our people. These rules of behavior taught us how to get along in polite society. Say “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Sir.” Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Don’t slurp your soup or your coffee. These rules gave us the boundaries of our lives.
Friday afternoon God’s House Blend had our monthly gathering for coffee and conversation atJohnKnoxRetirementCenter. Everybody seemed to be in a good mood and I cheerfully asked what had been going on that they’d like to talk about. What had been in the news and what was on our minds was politics. We thought we’d stick to a safer subject: religion. Yeah, we all laughed about that too.
Of course religion and politics are the two subjects we have been raised from infancy to avoid in polite conversation. That’s because a lot of people feel very strongly about both those topics and those conversations can quickly dissolve into arguments – or worse.
It was just the same back when Jesus was around. They talked about politics. They had to be careful what they said and to whom, but it had nothing to do with being polite. They were not talking about elections or which side had the better plan and which side was ruining the country. They were talking about overthrowing the oppressors who had defeated them and then occupied their country and were taxing them quite heavily.
They also talked about religion, and those conversations were pretty much the same as we have today. They were about when God was going to intervene and do something about this lousy world that surely could not get much worse. Who believed the right thing and who believed the wrong thing. Who was doing things the way God wanted and ordained and who was not. Who was in God’s good graces and who was not.
They were constantly talking about purity and those chapters in Leviticus known as the Purity Code or the Holiness Code. Purity was how you found favor with God. When you did something that wasn’t pure, it made you unclean, and you had to go through a ritual to become clean again and thus right in the sight of God.
When we think about purity today the first thing we think about is sex: who may have sex and who may not; also how they are allowed to have it and when. All that is a part of the Purity Code, but that was not the first thing that people thought about back when Jesus was around. If you said “purity” back then, the first thing they thought of was food: what you were eating, how it was prepared, and with whom you were eating. The Pharisees obsessed over it.
The truth is that there is a lot more written in the Purity Code about food and eating than there is about sex. Just saying. The Purity Code also includes admonitions about trimming your sideburns or your beard (you aren’t supposed to) and also about not wearing fabric woven from two different kinds of fiber. No cotton and polyester blends allowed.
The passage from Matthew we read this morning is about food and eating – sort of. You know how Jesus has a way of taking a conversation that begins about one topic and then he turns it until it is about another topic entirely. That’s what he did here.
The first verses of this chapter (which we did not read) are about the Pharisees accusing the disciples of not washing their hands before meals. I know that sound kind of disgusting, but they were not talking about lathering hands up with soap and rubbing them together vigorously for 30 seconds before rinsing. They are talking about the hand-washing ritual. It was about being ritually clean, not physically clean.
Jesus basically tells them to back off and stop worrying about what is going into their mouths. He tells them to stop worrying about the Purity Code.
I love how Matthew tells us that when Jesus said this the disciples responded, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard you say that?” The disciples were trying to watch Jesus’ back, since clearly he was not paying attention to what he was saying and what he was saying was riling up the Pharisees something awful.
Not follow the Purity Code? Are you out of your ever-loving mind? The Purity Code comes from God. We follow this code to show our respect for God. When we do the things in this code we are pure. When we don’t do them we are unclean. God wants us pure!
Jesus said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” It ought to be pretty obvious what he was saying. I know you get it. He’s telling the people that they need to pay attention to what is in their heart rather than to what they are eating or how it was cooked or stored or who they were eating with. He’s telling them to use the brains that God gave them to discern that what God wants from them is to live in relationship with each other and help each – to love each other as they love God and as they love themselves.
And just to make it a little bit easier, Jesus points out very specifically the things that come out of the heart that do defile a body: “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”
Jesus is telling them that there are things in life that are far more important that the Purity Code and that those who are so focused on that Purity Code that they cannot see what is really important are blind. And here they are, the blind trying to tell other people what to do and how they ought to be living their lives. The blind are leading the blind because the people who follow those blind guides are also blind. Folks, we have some responsibility to figure out if the people we are following know what they are talking about and are truly discerning God’s will.
Wow, it’s no wonder the Pharisees took offence at what Jesus said. In one discourse he nullified the Purity Code and proclaimed that the people trying to get everyone to follow that Code (namely the Pharisees) as blind. Now it’s one thing to insult a group of religious men, but it is quite another thing to say that whole chapters of the Bible simply do not apply to our lives.
We have to wonder just how important was the Code if Jesus would so casually dismiss it? Why did they ever have the Code in the first place? Ah, there’s a good question. Why did they have all these very specific ways to go about their daily living?
Well, I’ll tell you why. With the institution of the Purity Code the people were being told not to act like pagans. Do not act like the pagans. You are not pagans. You believe in the one true God. You must be different from the pagans, so do not look or act like pagans. Of course the pagans were anyone who worshipped someone besides Yahweh.
Why were the Hebrews told not to boil a kid in its own mother’s milk? Because there were other religions, cults, pagans, who were doing exactly that – they were boiling a kid in its own mother’s milk as part of their worship.
All these rules about what to eat, and when and with whom you can have sex, as well as not trimming your beard or mixing two types of fiber in one garment are about not acting like the pagans. Separate yourselves from them. Distinguish yourself as Jews so that people can tell that you are Jews by: what you look like, what you eat, and how you act.
Before we get all hyped up about the Pharisees and how legalistic the Jews can be, let us remember that we do the same thing all the time. How many times have you literally heard, “No, that’s not the way we do it”? Or everyone’s favorite, “But we never did it that way before”? It’s the exact same thing. It is valuing form over function. It is placing emphasis on what has been done in the past rather than what is needed right now today. We need to be very careful that we do not put our traditions ahead of God’s will for today.
So what is it that separates us from those who are not Christian? What makes us different? Our beliefs? Well, yes, but is there anything visible? It’s not the way we dress. Not the way we cut or don’t cut our hair or beards. Not the way we talk. Not the way we eat. What distinguishes us? The old hymn says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Not our beliefs. Our love. Our calling card is our love. That’s what gets us in the door to share with others, and more importantly, that’s what God wants from us. That’s how we show our obedience to God. We love each other.