Sunday, August 30, 2009

Lectionary 22
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

There are two different types of covenants used in the relationship between God and man: royal grant and Suzerain-vassal. Noah (Genesis 9), Abraham (Genesis 15) and David (2 Samuel 7) were given royal grants, a covenant that is given from a king to a loyal servant who was faithful without condition. The servant’s heirs benefited from such a grant only if they remained faithful. The suzerain-vassal covenant is between a king and a subject king. The king promises to protect the subject and the vassal promises absolute loyalty and service. This covenant is conditional, and remains intact as long as the vassal remains faithful. The covenant made at Sinai with Moses and Israel was a suzerain-vassal covenant. God’s protection was dependent on Israel’s faithfulness.

The Old Testament lesson begins, “Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers giveth you.” (KJV) The words ‘statutes’ and ‘judgments’ are legal terms that describe the Word of God. In other versions you will find these words used interchangeably or with other words such as ‘rules,’ ‘decrees,’ ‘laws,’ ‘regulations,’ and ‘teachings.’ It might seem redundant to use two works here, but John Wesley writes, “The statutes - The laws which concern the worship and service of God. The judgments - The laws concerning your duties to men. So these two comprehend both tables, and the whole law of God.” Wesley saw this repetition as defining the aspects of the rules we are to follow: rules that demonstrate love of God and love of man. We can find a similar division in the Ten Commandments: those laws that concern our relationship with God and those that concern our relationship with one another. These laws were a gift given by God to His people. They were meant to help us to live in community with God and with our neighbor.

The writer of Deuteronomy tells us to remember the statutes and ordinances that God has given, those rules upon which the suzerain-vassal covenant is based. These rules make sense: the impact is that the world will see that those who follow them are wise and discerning. Of course, some of the rules found in the Old Testament scriptures seem irrelevant, and perhaps they are in our day and age. However, they were wise for the people in those days. Take, for example, the regulations against eating pork. Without modern processing and refrigeration, the meat from pigs can be dangerous. We all know, particularly since there is a renewed fear about an epidemic of swine flu, how valuable it is to wash our hands regularly. The question we have to ask, however, is what do we, or have we, added to the statutes and ordinances that God has given? How have we made those valuable commands a burden on God’s people?

I received an email from one of my readers yesterday (thank you Dr. Ross) about how modern hygiene practices actually made cases of polio surge in the 1950’s. Before then, children were exposed in low levels to the polio virus that was found in the sewage and water. That dose was just enough to make them immune to the disease but not enough to make them sick. When the water was cleaned up, they no longer received that low level dose and were then vulnerable to the virus. The polio vaccine was created to do what the poor water conditions had done naturally. Human ingenuity both created the problem and solved the problem, and for this we can be grateful. But we are also reminded that it is possible to take a good thing so far as to make it dangerous.

I know some parents that go out of their way to keep their children from getting dirty. They limit the children’s exposure to other children, especially those who might be sick. Unfortunately, what has happened is that these children have not been able to build up that natural immunity that comes with low levels of exposure that will help them stay healthy. When these children do face the viruses and bacteria, they are more likely to get seriously ill because their body does not know how to fight the disease. It is good to wash our hands, especially before we eat, but we have to be careful about being so obsessive and burdensome about hand-washing that we allow our children’s immune system to fail when it is needed.

In the Gospel text, Jesus and his friends are eating dinner and they have not washed their hands. We don’t know exactly what they were doing before they sat down to eat, but it is possible that they had not done anything that might make their hands dirty. The problem here, however, wasn’t about clean hands. The Jews had made it a ceremonial ritual to wash hands before eating, and the Pharisees were offended that the disciples didn’t follow that tradition. They didn’t care about the possible disease that might be spread; they were concerned about the soul of the sinners. Hand washing had become a religious burden rather than a good idea for the health and well-being of the community.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees by showing them that they have turned away from God, that they are hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another. They claim to honor God with their ritual and ceremonies, but they put heavy burdens on the people that God never intended. It is not the hands that make someone unclean, but the heart. And we see the reality of our sin not in the failure to follow the traditions of men, but in the ways we harm our neighbor.

The laws were not given by God as a way to keep the people down as we find with so many human regulations, but rather as a way to lift the people and the nation up. They were given to guard and protect the people of God, to make them and to keep them whole. Our relationship with God and our relationships with one another are vital to our wholeness. The laws are good, right and true. God’s laws are complete just as they was given. They are God’s Word, a gift to humankind to help create and maintain relationships. There are no laws of any country that are more perfect, or more righteous, or more just than the laws of God. In these statutes and ordinances are found true wisdom. We should not think ourselves wiser than God to add to or take away from what He has given.

The psalmist reminds us that we are bound by the Sinaitic covenant and that our safekeeping is dependent on the way we respond to the relationship with our God. The promise of protection is a Suzerain-vassal covenant, and we can’t expect to be safe if we go against the good Word of God. We can dwell in God’s presence, in His tent or on His holy hill when we walk blamelessly. The psalmist details the actions expected of God’s people: to do what is right and to speak the truth from their heart. Those who stand firm against God’s enemies are those who do not slander or do evil to friends or wrong their neighbors. The righteous are those who despise the wicked and honor those who fear the Lord. They keep their promises even if it will be a sacrifice. They do not harm the poor or weak by charging interest or taking a bribe.

But the Law is more than a list of rules for us to obey. It is a way of life we are called to live. In Martin Luther's Small Catechism, the rules are expounded to include not only the "thou shalt nots" but to also include a positive manner in which that commandment can be lived. Take, for example, the commandments against murder. Luther suggested that God not only does not want us to kill, but also that we should do everything within our power to protect our neighbor's life. Most of us can easily say we have not killed our neighbor, but have we done everything we can to ensure that he or she has life? We may not physically take our neighbor's things, but do we do everything we can to help our neighbor keep what is theirs?

Jesus talked about the Law in today’s Gospel lesson. The Commandments found on those tablets given to Moses tell us to honor our mother and father. This means not only treating them with respect in our words and actions. It was the responsibility of sons and daughters to ensure the care of parents as they grew old. This meant giving them whatever they needed for life: food, shelter, love. But there was a loophole in the Law: the sons could dedicate their wealth to God and then it need not be used for the care of family. Though this was good and right according to the traditions of men, the vow to God actually dishonored the man’s parents. This is what Jesus was talking about. Jesus said, “…but ye say, If a man shall say to his father or his mother, That wherewith thou mightest have been profited by me is Corban, that is to say, Given to God; ye no longer suffer him to do aught for his father or his mother; making void the word of God by your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things ye do.” They were adding to the Word of God by establishing their own law and claiming it is from God.

James reminds us that we have been born, and born again, to be witnesses to the goodness of God. We do so by being doers of the word. James takes the “do nots” of Deuteronomy and turns them around to the things we should do: listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. We are the first fruits of God’s grace and are called to live in that grace. He writes, “Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Those of us bound by the covenant are given all we need to be all that God has intended us to be. We are called to do what is right and good and true, to be faithful to God and loyal servants in the world He has created and given to us.

James writes, “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves.” In other words, it is not enough for us to know the Ten Commandments by heart, able to recite them from memory. We are called to actively live in and out of those commandments. It is not enough to know we are to worship God only. If we are doers of the Word we will worship God only. It is not enough to know that we should not murder our neighbor. If we are doers of the Word we will live and act in a manner that will bring them life.

God’s law was not designed to be demeaning or humiliating. God’s law gives us the freedom to live within a community of grace, in relationship with God and one another. God invites us to dwell in His tabernacle which is open to the world. Instead of living within a closed set of rules that burden and oppress us, God gives us the perfect Law that frees us to live in love and hope and grace. We are created to be religious, to honor and worship God, to do good works, to live a holy life. But we are not meant to be burdened by men’s laws and worthless traditions. We are invited to dwell in the tabernacle, to abide in Christ who is God living among His people, and to be the kind of people who not only know the Law, but also live it fully. We are called to be people who do not add to the word or take away from it, who take care of those in need and who live a life that is good, right and true according to God’s word.

In our lesson, Jesus turns His attention to the crowd and says, “Hear me all of you, and understand: there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man.” The laws we obey might be very helpful for keeping us healthy. By living this life, we will make God’s grace apparent in the world. But we have to beware that we do not add anything to God’s Word, burdening the people with our expectations.

We have been blessed by the Suzerain-vassal covenant that God made first with His people Israel. The covenant still frees us to live in community with God and our neighbor. We have also been blessed by a greater covenant, the Royal Grant in which God has given us salvation through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. For us, the loyalty and service that we give as a condition of the old covenant is simply our response to the grace of the new.

In the Psalm David asks, “Jehovah, who shall sojourn in they tabernacle?” As we read through the answer found in this week’s Psalm, we grieve our inability to live up to that expectation. Who is there that walks rightly, works righteousness, and speaks truth in the heart? Oh, perhaps we do so at times, but even one slight failure makes us unworthy. Which one of us can really keep that tight reign on our tongues? How often have we done evil, even if the evil has been our lack of doing right for our neighbor? We can’t live up to these expectations; we can't be one who shall sojourn in the tabernacle.

Yet, Christ came to invite us in. As a matter of fact, the tabernacle itself was just a foreshadowing of what Christ would be and what Christ would do. He is the true tabernacle and His incarnation set the Living God amongst His people not as a tent or a building made of stone, but as a man of flesh and blood. He came to dwell with His people so that we might also dwell with our God.

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