Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
For you set aside the commandment of God, and hold tightly to the tradition of men - the washing of pitchers and cups, and you do many other such things.
I read a lot of books about the days leading up to World War II including a book that was written by a woman who was a child in those years. She came from an average German non-religious Protestant family. Her descriptions of her life in the beginning sounded pretty normal, with birthdays and family, school and every day activities. As time passed and she grew older, the world around her began to change in ways she did not like. Her family did not support Hitler, although as all Germans they had to make concessions to the world that was developing around them. As she grew and matured, she became less and less comfortable with what was happening, not only because the changes were an inconvenience but because they simply were not right.
The girl had heard stories from the First World War, and the thought of a second frightened her. She wasn’t interested in being involved with the organizations that rose around Hitler’s regime, but it became increasingly difficult to avoid it. She had teachers who were devout, who taught the propaganda. She was surrounded by it in the newspapers, on the radio and on the newsreels at the movie theater. She experienced the growing apprehension that came with ration cards and rules that didn’t make any sense. While her thoughts and fears did not come from a strong and active faith, something within her knew that it just wasn’t right.
We often hear Christianity, and quite frankly Lutheranism, blamed for what happened during the early part of the twentieth century in and around Germany. While it is true that Luther had problems with the Jews later in life, the use of his works by the Hitler regime was purely convenience, not conviction. No one who can murder millions of people - not just Jews, but the disabled, the sick, the old, the blacks, the homosexuals, the gypsies, the communists, etc. - is Christian. Hitler may have claimed to be a Christian, but he did not live the Christian life. He was, like many, many other Christians around the world even today, one who claimed faith by tongue but not by actions.
We often wonder how it could have happened. How did all those Germans allow the horror of the Hitler regime happen? I think this is why I’m so interested in the perspective of this woman’s book. We know the stories of Bonheoffer and others involved in the conspiracy to stop Hitler. We know about Schindler and his list. We know about the Jews who escaped and those who survived; we know the stories of those who died from the testimonies of those who did not. But we rarely see how life unfolded for the average German.
We wonder why they didn’t do something, but would we? Are we any more willing to fight the culture that is determined to make us conform? Are we willing to stand up for what we believe, like men such as Bonheoffer? I doubt it. I consider myself faithful and faith-filled, and yet I know I am about as powerful as those average Germans who did not believe they could do anything to change what is happening.
They didn’t even try in the beginning because each change was presented in a way that made it seem like a good thing for Germany and her people. There was no harm to enlisting the children into organizations; as a matter of fact, it helped build them into better citizens! It was probably a good thing to limit the ability to bear children for those with deformities, for the sake of the child as well as the nation. The communists were bad, very bad, so they probably deserved to die. “We need the resources found in those territories and thank goodness someone is willing to stand up for Germany against the world that wants to keep us down!” It became uncomfortable when they were directly affected, like when there were food shortages, but they were willing to sacrifice for their homeland, and besides, isn’t this exactly why we need to take back the land that was stolen from us in the previous war?
As much as we find it hard to believe, most Germans probably did not even really know what was happening right under their noses. They believed what they heard. They probably ignored the feelings in their guts for as long as they could, but then it was too late when they could ignore it any longer. It was a matter of life and death. Do I fight and die or do I hide in my own little corner of the world and find a way to survive, hoping for a better day?
I don’t think we can make an exact comparison between then and now, especially since everyone and every side tries to paint their enemy as the villain. Hitler had an incredibly broad range of ideologies that cross the boundaries that divide us today, making it impossible to truly label him as “one of them” or “one of us.” I read about some of his programs and ideas and think, “That’s what ‘they’ are trying to do,” but then read others and think, “My guy could have said that.” We have to be careful about how we deal with our own interpretation of what happened then and what is happening now.
We need to begin with ourselves. Isaiah tells us that the Lord God says, "The Lord said, ‘Because this people draws near with their mouth and with their lips to honor me, but they have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which has been taught; therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men will perish, and the understanding of their prudent men will be hidden.” Do we say, “Lord, Lord” with our mouths but live our lives conformed to the world around us? Even worse is when we try to make our lives of faith conform to the way we think is best, seeking to benefit ourselves rather than live according to God’s Word.
That’s what was happening with the Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson. They questioned Jesus about the way the disciples did not wash their hands according to the traditions of the elders. Now, we all know that hand washing is a good thing. We have learned in recent centuries that it helps avoid the spread of disease. Lots of germs get on our hands, and while they might not have fully understood the reason for the hand washing, it was a good rule. However, they made it a standard of faithful living, a rule which one must follow to be a good believer.
Jesus answered their question with the quote from Isaiah, telling the Pharisees that they are more interested in the laws of men rather than the Law of God. Then he pointed out their hypocrisy. He said, “Full well do you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother;’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban , that is to say, given to God”;’ then you no longer allow him to do anything for his father or his mother, making void the word of God by your tradition, which you have handed down. You do many things like this.”
Now, on the surface the idea of Corban is good because it appears that they are committing their resources to God. However, the idea of Corban is to be much more loosely understood. See, they were committing the resources to God as a promise, but they continued to hold onto the money for their own use while they were living. They used the man-made law of promise as an excuse to not share their wealth with their parents in need while acting as if they were being faithful to God’s Law. Their legalistic attention to the laws they prescribed had nothing to do with faith in their God. It was a way of grasping onto the power while rejecting and ignoring God's grace.
God doesn’t need our promises. He blesses us to be a blessing. If we have a few extra dollars, God would want us to use it to help someone in need, most particularly those who bore and raised us. Corban, a promise of money, does nothing to glorify God, but obeying the Law of honoring our mothers and fathers will also honor the God who is our Creator and Redeemer Father.
Today’s epistle lesson is somewhat uncomfortable for us in this modern age. We don’t use language like Paul used in his letter to the people at Ephesus. Most women would scoff at the suggestions made here: “Wives, be in subjection unto your own husbands,” and “Let the wife see that she fear her husband.” These verses make it appear as though we are expected to be like doormats, held by the power of someone deemed greater. That’s not what Paul intends at all, as we can see in the context of the passage. Marriage is a complimentary relationship; both partners provide something to make the two become one. A woman is free based on God’s grace to be what God created her to be, to live in the relationship with her husband who is called to be like Christ to her.
Who has the harder task? Is it the wife who submits to the husband, or the husband who must be Christ-like and love his wife more than his own life?
Of course, there have been people who have claimed faith in Christ who have used passages like this to force compliance to a misplaced understanding of the relationship between husband and wife. It is no wonder that we cringe when we hear these words. Women are abused on a daily basis, some with the justification that the man has a right according to the biblical standard. We know this is a misunderstanding and that they are ignoring the command to the husband to treat his wife with a sacrificial love, to nourish and treasure her as if her body was his own. He is to be Christ-like and the man who abuses a woman, especially his wife, is not being like Christ. He must be willing to give even his life for her sake.
Just as honoring one’s mother and father honors God, so does the marriage covenant stand as a witness to the relationship between Christ and His Church. The Father loves the Son, Jesus Christ. The Son loves the Church. In response to the love, the Son submits to the Father and the Church submits to the Son. The love provides, the submission accepts. In loving and submission, the two become one body, in both marriage and in Christ.
I wish I could say without a doubt that I would stand firmly like Bonheoffer and not conform to the world as it changes around me. I can’t. As a matter of fact, I’m certain that I have conformed in some ways. I am certain that I more likely stand in the ranks of those who will find it is too late to make a difference because I am a failing, sinful human being. I fear the wrong things, I seek my own benefit. I follow man-made laws because they sound much better than the ones that God has given to us. I can’t count on myself, but I can count on the God who has promised to forgive me.
The words from Isaiah sound hopeless, but there is hope. God can overcome our faithlessness. God can and does provide for us, even in our failure. God has set us free by the blood of Christ, and while we are imperfect in our living in that freedom, He will also save us from ourselves. We are called to respond to God’s saving grace with fear and trembling. In the end we will know true joy in the relationship He has made between Jesus Christ and His bride, the Church, between Jesus and you and I. We will fully know and experience that joy as we dwell in the Word of God rather than follow the traditions of men.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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