Matthew 15:1-20

Every culture has its way of marking out what is sacred, special, to be respected, and what is ordinary and needs no special respect. For instance, in Maori and Pacific culture you may eat specially consecrated food like communion bread and wine in a place of worship, but you don’t eat ordinary food there. Palagi culture doesn’t mark its sacred space in that same way, so we have no particular issue with eating in a worship space. I’m sure that the Pacific families that are part of our church can point out a few ways that Palagi do mark sacred space though. Some of them will be the same as Pacific people and some not – move the chairs, touch the organ, bring the drum kit and synthesiser, forget to light the candle, shift the bible, let the service go on a bit long….

When a couple marry and move in together, (or move in together and then marry)- they are suddenly confronted with a whole lot of differences in the way things are done. They have taken on not just the person they love but, horror of horrors, the way that that person goes about life as well. In her family they know about dirty clothes baskets, in his they use the floor for that (or so he says). He works to a budget, she sees something she likes and just buys it. One of them squeezes the toothpaste tube at the bottom, the other just squeezes it.

There are all these things, that all their lives, they have just assumed that that’s the way it’s done- it has never crossed their minds that it can be done another way. It is very easy to guild the way we do things with words like logical, best, sensible, obvious, right, proper….

So the negotiations begin, in that mix of love and frustration, understanding and argument, Negotiations that will hopefully lead to some workable compromise in which both win some of the time, and the essentials get done one way or another.

Whether it is a matter of different cultures being brought together or different people being brought together, it is a chance for all to sort out what is really critical, and what isn’t quite so important and might even be let go. This may not feel like a blessing in the cut and thrust of negotiations, but it is. The chance to recognise what is core, and what isn’t, is one we probably wouldn’t have had had, had we encountered only more of our own assumptions and conclusions instead of difference.

Segments of Jewish culture in Jesus’ day made a very definite division between what was holy and what was ordinary. The Hebrew and Greek words for holy both have a strong sense of being set apart from ordinary use and dedicated to sacred service.

There was the sacred and the profane. Profane in this sense doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. Our word ‘profane’ comes from two Latin ones- fanum which means temple and pro which means before. Profane means something that is outside the bounds of the sanctuary- it is before it, not inside it.

The New Testament equivalent is koinos ( you may have heard the word koinonia-fellowship, community- they are both from the same root). Koinos means communal or common-something that comes into contact with anything and everything. Ordinary, unfussy, profane… and because it could have been in touch with anything it was regarded as ceremonially impure or unclean.

Something that was koinos (ordinary) was approachable and usable without any ceremony. That was not the case for anything that was holy. There special attention had to be paid, precautions had to be taken. You did not mix the sacred and the profane. You did not bring anything that was potentially unclean, including yourself, into a holy place.

The Pharisees were the holiness movement of the day. Wherever possible they avoided contact with anything that might render them unclean. They were fastidious in their observance of Jewish ritual law. Within their own circle and outside of it, they gained a lot of kudos for going above and beyond the basic legal requirements for ritual purity. They were seriously holy. They prided themselves in not only following the Torah (the legal requirements of the Hebrew scriptures) but also in following the oral commentary that rose up around that law and came in the end to be written down as the Mishnah.

Their protest about proper hand washing is a case in point. The Torah only stipulates ritual hand washing for priests. On the strength of their oral tradition the Pharisees had adopted the practice whether they were priests or not. Then on the rationale that Israel was a holy priesthood in respect to the rest of the world, they sought to impose the practice on the wider community. This was not an argument about public health; it was an argument about who was holy and pure. It was an argument about authority.

The Pharisees were very sure that there was one route to holiness and they were the ones who knew it and practiced it. So anyone who wanted to dedicate themselves to God had better get in behind. There was no room for negotiation for they had the mind of God, or at least the wisdom of the elders, on this.

Jesus responds by giving them a flea in the ear about a particularly glaring short coming in their brand of holiness. Then he calls the crowd and makes a statement that scandalises the Pharisees and astonishes even his own disciples.
Listen and try to understand. It is not the food that you put into your mouth that makes you unclean and unfit to worship God; the bad words that come out of your mouth are what make you unclean. Mt15:10-11

That’s a direct hit on Jewish dietary law, one of the major ways in which Jews observed their faith and honoured what was sacred. You can imagine any Gentile hearing or reading Matthew’s gospel in the days of the early church going, ‘Yes!’ It meant, you see, that dietary law was cultural, not core. ‘It is what you say and do that are far better indicators of the state of the soul than what you take in by way of food,’ Jesus explains to the disciples.

It is not the things that come from outside that taint us; it is what comes from ourselves- poor attitudes, economy with the truth, stories told to justify theft, infidelity and violence. That is the stuff that makes us less than what we should be. If we are scrupulous about external religious observance yet neglect the nudges of God’s Spirit within us to accept God’s love and forgiveness ever more deeply, and to allow that same love and grace to spill over into our living then we have missed the point. We are not a plant planted by the Lord at all, only a weed that robs other plants of the sun and the nutrients and space that they need to grow. We make dangerous guides, because we have no real idea of where the track is or even what it looks like.

The high priests of computing say ‘Garbage in, garbage out,’ but when it comes to humans Jesus says ‘Garbage out, garbage out.’ What comes out is indicative of what is inside. Faith that lacks integrity is nothing. But faith with integrity… that is something else. That is God’s treasure hidden in the ordinary, earthenware vessels of our lives. That is the sacred touching and transfiguring the profane.

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