A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Getting Grubby @ Dinner
September 3, 2006
Pentecost 13 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
'Always wash your hands before eating' said granny, said dad, said the doctor, said I. Good common hygienic sense. A gang of critics, a religious club from down Jerusalem way, reprimanded Jesus' followers for not washing their hands. Hand washing however was not about hygiene. That's our post-Florence Nightingale thing. Hand washing was about symbolic purity.
In the Bible hand washing was something priests did in the Temple – it was not a requirement for laypeople. Yet the Pharisaic movement was trying to promote the idea that every home is like a temple and every person is like a priest. 'Holiness' they would have said, 'is not just something that happens in Jerusalem, but also something that happens right in your midst'. Not too different from some of Jesus' ideas really.
The actions of Jesus' disciples were not seen as dirty because of a lack of soap. Rather they were seen as in need of a moral scrub-up because they had been out mixing with “undesirables”. It was their social contacts that made them unclean.
This passage from Mark's gospel is about the purity code – that code of conduct that defined ethnic and religious boundaries. It determined who was in and who was out, what was acceptable and what was not, and who was in control. Before we get too hard on the Pharisaic movement (a number of whom would have had sympathies with Jesus' interpretations), let's recognize that every group has boundaries. Every group has ways of determining who's in, what's acceptable, and who's in control. Schools, pony clubs, AA, bowling clubs, and the Church all have boundaries. The critical questions are: how rigid or porous should boundaries be, do they reflect the core values of the group, and is the leadership accountable to the values?
As an aside consider for a moment baptism. This, on one level, is a boundary ritual. We are welcoming a child into our group. Should the child, or parents and godparents on the child's behalf, meet a certain doctrinal criteria to get in? Right belief is a core value for many Christians.
I take the view, however, that the core value of the Church is God's acceptance of all people regardless of belief. Belief is a byproduct of Christian community, not a gate to exclude. If someone wants to come, participate in this ritual of welcome, celebration, and blessing, then that is enough. The boundary is porous, holey.
These scriptural debates between Jesus and certain Pharisees and Scribes lead me to suspect that the latter had put purity, right belief and practice, as a core value around which their world revolved. They interpreted God's holiness as demanding an elaborate system of rules and regulations, and then vindicating the systems they created. On the other hand, Jesus interpreted God's holiness as compassion and an embrace of all, particularly those who were excluded and oppressed.
With compassion and acceptance at the core of his values Jesus got a reputation for wild dinner parties. Around the same table would sit a rural fisherman, a one-time leader of the Synagogue, a prostitute, a local bullyboy, a Roman soldier, an immigrant woman from over the border…. Jew and gentile, male and female, strange and familiar…
The purity system was constituted by external boundaries: “Don't eat with them, don't touch that, don't fraternize with her… Look out or you'll get grubby, and then you won't be able to eat with us!” Purity was about rules. Piety meant adhering to them.
For Jesus purity was constituted by what was in one's heart. If compassion was in one's heart, then piety meant being hospitable, generous, and willing to suspend one's prejudices in order to meet with strangers. For Jesus it wasn't what you put in your mouth, but what came out of it. It wasn't about keeping to the rules; it was about letting love be the measure of all you do.
It's not that Jesus was into a tolerance that says, “Everything is okay”. It is possible to find verses that infer, for example, that Jesus was opposed to the Roman occupation and unsupportive of bullying and prostitution. At the same time I don't think it is possible to categorically say that every soldier, tax collector, and prostitute Jesus dined with had renounced the morally disagreeable aspects of their professions.
In other words, at the table with Jesus the agreeable and disagreeable sat together. The sinners and saints broke bread together. The ideas, comments, and chat were not religiously sanitized. I imagine there were some pretty colourful words and some pretty novel views bandied around. The good, the bad, and the grubby were all together.
“What makes a person holy,” Jesus intonated, “is not who you mix with or what they say. What makes a person holy is being true to the God of compassion that wants to include everyone. It's the words you say and things you do that will reveal that God.”
Anglicanism at its best is into diversity but not apartheid. You can't go off into your corner, erect your security walls of right belief, and stay there. We are not the 'closeted brethren'. Like it or not you have to relate to the hetero-orthodox. You have to relate to those you find repugnant. We call it being in communion.
All of us are invited to Jesus' cosmopolitan dinner party. You are invited along with the weird, the wacky, the wonderful, the heretics, the harmful, and the harmless. And we don't sit in silence eating our own pre-packed sanitized meal. We talk, we share food, and we listen... Some have washed their hands. Some have washed their hearts. Others are dirty. Infection is possible. Purity is out the window. If you don't want to risk getting grubby don't come.
Jesus is there too. But, and this is the hard bit, he's in disguise. None of us are sure who he is. It's not like he's got a crown plastered on his head or a cross strapped to his back. Is Jesus that nice person or that disagreeable one? Is he the pain in the neck that won't shut up, or the quiet morose one sipping his merlot? Is he a she? And which she is he? Like I said, this is hard. We don't know whom he is agreeing with, if anyone. All we know is that he is there. This is what I think our new archbishop, David, was meaning when he said recently that “in any discussion the first principle is that Christ is in the room.”
The hard part of not knowing what Jesus looks like is that in our discussion and arguments around the dinner table each of us will have to find authority within ourselves. We can't turn to Jesus and seeing him or her nodding in agreement with us. There will be no external reference point, no judge or encyclopedia to determine right and wrong. On second thoughts I wonder whether any archbishop would really want that.
My punt is heaven's going to be a little like this. For some it will be hell.