Children of the God of Israel
12 Pentecost: Matthew 15:10-28
By Ellen T. Charry
Our Gospel this week has two quite different stories, and the first is relevant to the Jewish-Christian relationship that is our concern in this column. It has two scenes: a public discourse by Jesus, and a private meeting with his disciples. It is a “hard text” that does not present Jesus positively.
The pertinent story begins with Jesus calling a crowd to hear his public address. The only thing the evangelist tells us about it is that Jesus teaches that the mouth is the dirtiest organ of the body. It is not what goes into it but what comes out of it that defiles people. Matthew is pointing us to the core of Jesus’ assault on Pharisaic Judaism. The purity system, epitomized here by its food rules, is upside-down, wrongheaded. It is a brazen move.
Although they do not question his point, his companions privately warn Jesus that his speech is offensive to the very people he wants to win over, so it may not be the best strategy. They see that he is bringing trouble on himself. Jesus remonstrates with them, strengthening the insult. The Pharisees are “blind guides.” God will uproot them. Christians filled in their replacements.
Whether these are Jesus’ words or Matthew’s we do not know, but they convey anger. That anger spews over when Matthew expands the epithet to denounce Phariseeism — the foundation of normative Judaism — into a full chapter (23). The lectionary wisely excludes it.
Back at the text, Peter presses Jesus to explain further. Perhaps for the benefit of slow readers, Matthew has Jesus repeat that food does not matter. Emotions and attitudes motivating behavior matter to God. A list of bad behaviors follows. Seemingly for good measure, Matthew has Jesus throw in (really out) the Pharisaic custom of hand-washing before eating a meal. It too is still practiced by Orthodox Jews, accompanied by the blessing, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the cosmos, who has sanctified us with his commandments, and commanded us to wash our hands.” Many Christian parents teach their children to do the same, but without the blessing. Be that as it may, the denunciation sits in the story that breaks off abruptly at this point.
This story about Jesus’ disdain for Judaism in Matthew’s setting is as offensive to Jews who live by the commandments now as it was then. Hostility toward Judaism and Jews that this and comparable passages seem to authorize fill volumes, perhaps more read by Jews than Christians. Contempt remains like acrid odors embedded in the walls of synagogues and churches, though read differently. The chasm that would divide Christianity and Judaism seemingly forever is encapsulated here.
Many Christians today seek a better relationship with Judaism than the enmitous one that this text grounded. Preachers may understandably choose a sweeter lection for this day. The stout-hearted, however, will not dodge this bullet, but face it as the deadly shot that it became. A problem cannot be addressed unless and until it is recognized and understood as such. I believe that Christianity is strong enough to do that. How might that be done?
This story is about obedience. It is a highly disfavored word now, because it became associated with arbitrary and mean-spirited rules imposed by the powerful on the powerless. As dangerous as the craving for power is, let us not throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Parents and teachers do need to impose rules on children for their well-being. Employers need to establish practices for productive business. The issue is not whether there are rules to be obeyed but their fairness and concern to advance the common good. As my granddaughter said to me, “Where would I be without my teachers?”
This story is about obedient people who faithfully take up their parents’ and teachers’ way of life and one of its members who turns against it. He does not quietly leave the fold, but seeks to bring down the house. Here Jesus is a man on a mission. For us it raises the question of when we should obey and when we should question obeying. It is a struggle between discerning when to get in the way of what is happening and when to get out of the way of what is happening. It is a timeless challenge.