Sermon for Sunday, 16 August 2020

Wash your hands! Matthew 15. 10-29

            The human race is very good at arguments.  The Bible’s first story about mankind in Genesis 3 is about an argument.  Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. In the very next chapter, Genesis 4, Cain and Abel quarrel and it all ends in a horrible murder. And so it has been ever since.  We are an argumentative species. Only yesterday we commemorated the end of the biggest argument the world has ever experienced; the end of World War Two.

             Not all arguments are about such huge issues as W.W.2., which was about the fight against fascism and genocide of the Jews.   The argument in today’s Gospel was about something which at first sight seems to be relatively trivial. The Pharisees were outraged because the disciples of Jesus were seen not to have washed their hands before eating!  Well! Well! Well!

            ‘GO AND WASH YOUR HANDS,’ was a familiar cry of my mother when I was young, and no doubt my wife often said the same thing to our children too before we sat down to a meal.

            ‘WASH YOUR HANDS,’ has become something of a mantra of late for young and old alike. For us at this time, it is not only a matter of good hygiene, but potentially a matter of life or death.

            But for the Pharisees, the reason was very different.  They knew nothing about germs or viruses, although they may have noticed that the poor and unwashed suffered more illnesses than they themselves did. No! For them it was a matter of being pure and clean in the sight of God, and they firmly believed that outward cleanliness was a sure sign of inward purity.  There were many times when a ceremonial washing was called for; for example, if you touched a leper or someone who was ill, you became ceremonially unclean, and you needed to undergo a ceremonial washing. Or if you touched a Gentile or many animals that were considered unclean such as pigs or seafood; you couldn’t go to the synagogue or the temple without a ceremonial wash.   Also, women who had undergone childbirth had to undergo a ceremonial cleansing.  Echoes of this are still to be found in the Book of Common Prayer, with a ceremony called the’ Churching of Women,’  and when I first began ministry in the sixties, I was sometimes asked to use this service before a woman would feel it right to reappear in public.

             Ritual and Tradition can have a very strong hold over people, and this was certainly so in the time of Jesus. Of course, we still have many traditions, some good, some useful, some a bit weird and irrational.  When I led a pilgrimage in Israel a few years ago, we visited many holy sites, and also churches, synagogues and mosques.   I was slightly amused that in order not to offend, whether God or pious people, I’m not quite sure, we gentlemen had to doff our hats I churches, put on a hat in synagogues, and go barefoot mosques!

            However, with many of the traditions which ruled Jewish life, Jesus had no time at all; and he argued fiercely with the Pharisees about them.  The essence of his argument was about what constitutes true purity of heart, and what constitutes inward corruption and hypocrisy.  The definition of hypocrisy is, ‘ behaviour in which a person pretends to higher standards or belief than is actually the case.’  Jesus cites some examples of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy.

            YES!   Both here in the Gospel and elsewhere, Jesus really lams into the Pharisees, accusing them of hypocrisy and of being blind leaders of the blind.  For Jesus, this was a fundamental issue, and he never shrank from a good argument!

            The issue was that the Jews rightly prided themselves on being ‘The Chosen People.’ And they were right!   God had chosen them out of all the races upon earth to be the people to whom God would reveal his true nature and character.   To Moses and the prophets, his holiness, his desire for justice, his mercy towards sinners, his infinite love and his compassion were revealed.

            But, and it is a big but; the purpose he revealed himself to the Jews was so that they would be his agents, his missionaries, his envoys to the world.  And in this, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, whether Pharisees, Sadducees or Levites   failed miserably.  They prided themselves on being God’s favourites, a cut above the rest of mankind.  They had no sense of mission.  Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism were at best………. Godfearers: to be admired in a way, but best kept at arm’s length.

            It is only right to say that throughout the history of Judaism, there had been other voices, opposing voices.  There were some who saw God’s vision for the whole world to come to  a saving  knowledge of himself.  The books of Ruth and Jonah are examples of this wider vision.

             Look again at our Old Testament passage. Isaiah 56. which speaks so strongly of holy foreigners and concludes in verse 7……’ my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.’   Yes!

‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.’

                        Look again at Psalm 67 which speaks so powerfully of a hoped-for time when all the world will know God.  ‘Let all the peoples praise thee; Let all the nations rejoice and shout in triumph.’

            That is the Christian mission to the world. That is my mission. That is your mission. That is Cornerstone’s mission.

             What may have seemed a trivial argument about hand washing was actually about something much deeper.  It was about PURITY OF HEART., without which we cannot serve our Lord Jesus Christ.

            How often the Christian Church has failed; arguing among ourselves over petty matters of ritual or tradition, wasting time on non-essentials.  How often have we said things which have defiled us?  And the mission stalls.

            J. B. Phillips wrote a book whose contents I have long admired.  Its very title is a constant challenge.  Its title is,‘YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL.’

             Let it challenge us too.  Let it challenge your prejudices.  And let Psalm 67 inspire you as a prayer and a vision of what the future could be. Amen.

Revd. Paul J. Le Sueur.   16.8. 2020.