We have so little of what Jesus actually taught. Despite some scholarship to sort it out, we have little choice but to wrap ourselves around the words of the Gospels in faith and love, and look to the Epistles, which were written even earlier than Mark’s Gospel, for clarification of what we believe and what is enshrined, by the Grace of the Spirit, in the Creeds and Baptismal Covenant. Each Gospel writer had an axe to grind, a community to protect, and threats from the larger world. Matthew is an example. The Matthean community wanted to be the fulfillment of Judaism, and so the Pharisees, those loyal, religious, righteous and God-fearing Jews, came in for a hard time. Regrettably the millennia of anti-Semitism which followed were the fruits of this particular flaw in the writer whom we honor and bless for the Words of Jesus which he gave us. And then we had the Biblical literalists which took this holy and deep wisdom which shines through despite the necessary human interface of the 1st century church and weaponized it. Matthew 15:1-20 is a good example.
First off, no, children, Jesus didn’t not say you don’t have to wash your hands before dinner. Nice try. The Pharisees were taking to task Jesus and his followers for breaking purity laws. Even today in Orthodox Jewish households contaminating meat or dairy kitchenware with each other takes some ritual cleansing. Running them through the dishwasher won’t do it. And so these nice middle-class 1st century religious citizens were horrified. They may have also been reacting to a group of radical itinerant preachers as dangerous to their comfortable status quo. Jesus pivots, as he often does, to attack them for breaking the law concerning respect for elders. The exact issue is complex and not well explained but it seems to have been some kind of bait and switch where funds for care of parents were deflected to the Temple. Jesus, quoting Isaiah 29: 13, answers, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” This is close to Jesus’ warnings about those who cry out to him, Lord, Lord, but he doesn’t know them. And his teaching that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath (Matt 2; 27).
Remember, Jesus is excoriating the Pharisees. We get into trouble with the exposition given to Peter and the disciples when Jesus explains, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person (Mt 15: 18b-20).” The list in Mark is “evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person (Mk 7: 21b-23)”, similar but including the sins even good people fall to. The trouble is that when that list is generalized, as true as it may be, suddenly we are burdened with speech codes and literal application of this teaching. The sin we fall into is in turning this list into the kind of purity laws which the Pharisees employed to control their community. Those who violate those norms can bring criticism or expulsion from the community, or worse.
We certainly urge civil behavior especially in Christian community. But we are also following not only our Lord, the merciful one, who lifts up the oppressed, but also the fearless rebel who speaks truth to worldly power no matter the cost. When Jesus refers to the Pharisees as blind guides who will drag the blind followers down with them he is not being very nice. And hypocrites. Certainly if I called someone a hypocrite or blind guide in my community it would raise some eyebrows. Would the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, so cunningly played by Dame Maggie Smith, be chided by a Christian community for pokes and slights? I think so. We know that Jesus wasn’t always even tempered. He was sometimes harsh with his disciples, and his mother and brothers. And clever with words. And then there was that incident at the Temple. But we also want peace and tranquility in our communities, a place where we are safe to listen to each other. The liability is that in a world gone rude, thanks to social media, are we idolizing being nice, agreeable, timid?
Presumably what Jesus is teaching here is that our gift of words is driven by the heart, for good and for ill, for blessing and in woundedness. Feelings come from the heart. Love, hate, fear, disappointment, hurt. It is the place where we feel the stirrings of the Holy Spirit and the invasions of the Father of Lies. The heart is the strong center of our faith, and easily hurt. How many evils listed above come from a bruised heart, a heart that can’t open to God, and at least periodically that happens to all of us. An accusation or slight can crush us. And we will react. In Grace we will turn in prayer to Christ for comfort. But more likely it opens the possibility of angry words or words of pain and resentment. Most of us can avoid murder. But slander and false witness can easily come from two people rubbing up against each other in a tight knit community. It happens. Business models, complete with Venn diagrams and rules for interpersonal relations, may skirt the more egregious sins on the list in Matthew by calming the discourse, but they aren’t the cure for our human brokenness. Only Jesus is. And he forgives and heals. And I think that is what Jesus is teaching us, even warning us. But I don’t think he is offering us a weapon to use against each other’s weakness and occasional failure.
I have a new sympathy for the community in Corinth, having observed parish life for some time. And for Paul’s impatience. We, too, are swamped with changing theologies and social behavior and trending strategies and celebrity gurus. Rules and boundaries feel safe. They protect us from that tsunami of chaotic notions. But taken too far they become idols in and of themselves. Feeling the call to live a Jesus centered life, I believe we must be careful not to fall into the sin of Biblical literalism any more than we should uncritically embrace the political trend of the day. How we live in true Christian community, the kind we imagine erupted in the first three centuries, in a post-Modern world is problematic. Are we struggling to define ourselves blindly through Scripture? Are we growing in Christ or running scared? Yes, the words of the Gospels can themselves be skewed and weaponized. If we could live the Way of Love at all times we would be better placed to discern the will of the Spirit. But the Kingdom hasn’t come yet. Until then we struggle together, with kindness interspersed with moments of pain, frustration, and anger. As we try to listen to the Spirit in our hearts and in the hearts of each other.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.