Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Modern Christian Legacy!

WE RECEIVE two possibilities for readings on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. Though both come from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, some churches use the longest version, which contains lessons about both dietary laws and the care of persons who are considered unworthy. The shorter reading singularly presents us, however, with only the latter scene. Both lessons, no matter which length we hear… surely address our taste for God’s love…

And he (Jesus) called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.”
 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.”
 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
                                                                                 (Matthew 15:10-28)

On Being Pure…
A popular maxim is often quoted when dietary customs are broken. We in modern times can hear someone say, “You are what you eat!” This usually comes to us in jest, warning from antiquities long forgotten. But there is a latent seriousness, since the diet of a civilization is historically proven to affect our personal and corporate physical health and mental well-being. For example, the Jews had well prospered as functioning within the strict guidelines given by God in ancient times. In today’s reading, however, we see that our Lord Jesus challenged the Jewish assumptions of his day, and the alterations that generations of people had made. Our Lord spoke of how they had changed the original intent.
You see, the religious dietary restrictions originally had been given by God through Moses. They protected his chosen people from harm through both migration and settlement. These became religious dietary practice. But as history unfolded, those dietary traditions were not just used for personal and national health, but were altered and expanded as a self-righteousness recipe. Those who did not concur or could not adhere to the restrictions, were considered impure by those who considered themselves as pure. In their opinion, the impure rabble became unfit for accepted Jewish society. We find, therefore, that these food purity practices were challenged by our Lord.
 Jesus stated that there was a distinct difference between what we put into our bodies as food, and what comes out of us as personal expression. Our Lord explained that from the heart, as representing the central ground of our being, came the true representation of ourselves. Our heart’s expression then is what truly defiles, since we are sinful through and through.
 "Explain the parable to us?" was the response from the disciples. To answer, our Lord referred his listeners to the Father’s original intent, determining from the prophet…

Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land for ever, the shoot of my planting, the work of my hands, that I might be glorified. (Isaiah 60:21)

 The scriptures thus told them through the words of the prophet that “planting” was the work of God. The Father shall provide them with righteousness. Thus Jesus' words were offensive to the Pharisees who taught that their works of religiously eating purely and doing the traditional things brought righteousness. Jesus accused them of gross error. He called them “blind guides”.
 Our Lord thus refocused those who would listen. He clarified that it is only God who makes righteousness a thing that that can be humanly possessed. Righteousness was properly defined, therefore, as a quality given by our Creator and not made through human endeavor. True righteousness, you see, is naturally expressed from the heart of anyone who was gifted with such by God. As time progressed then, we find that the church would know that this quality would be demonstrated only by one person, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Righteousness Shared…
We see here that the early church Matthew then passes along not only a repudiation of Pharisaic laws, but by selectively sequencing the received written tradition, told the salvation story of Jesus' encounter with an “impure” foreigner. As we read we may ask ourselves, “Was this to challenge the infant church in its thoughts about the singularity for Judaism as the “children” of God?” At the time of writing (c. 85 A.D.), were the “traditions of the elders” in dietary and religious piety in such things such as circumcision still an issue, even though Paul had properly challenged Peter’s vacillation about these things in Galatia some thirty years earlier? I believe both of these statements to be true. It seems that from times of old, we sinfully, and religiously cling to our own human justifications.
 Coupled with this lesson concerning dietary laws, therefore, we find Matthew immediately attaches the story of a Gentile woman who sought healing for her child. The Syrian-Phoenician location and her Canaanite identity provide a double condemnation, at least for those in the infant church. Doubly undesirable was she to those who were living in the north near Antioch, for it was in that region that the woman’s identity brought the issue home.
 We note that Jesus challenged the woman about her coming to him, by saying that he was sent to retrieve the “lost” ones of wandering Israel. She countered his statement, saying that even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the table. Many are confused here by the apparent callousness of the statement about Jesus' singular task. But I consider that this discourse found its way into scripture, not for the sake of the woman who approached Jesus… or to justify his mission... but was meant as revelation to those Jews of the early church. The statement of Jewish favoritism likely mirrored the thought patterns of many in Matthew’s synagogue. And so also, by striking their thoughts of exclusivity... does it not challenge our Lord’s church today?
 Jesus had simply related accepted truth as thought by the church of Matthew. We correctly note that our gospel writer emphasized here, however, that justifying faith was far more important to our Lord than traditional expectations kept. Remember, from the earlier discussion we see that the emphasis our Lord placed was that of faith expression… faith which comes from the heart.
 We of the modern church need gather from these lessons a priority for us today. Yes, our historical traditions are important, but traditional expectations they are. What is more important is our faith as it is expressed to God. We note the power of that expression, about the faith given to us by God, is the spiritual force which propelled the church of Matthew though the turmoil of centuries. Faith is that which sustains the whole church even unto this day. We note with sadness that the faith of that ancient church is yet challenged. Matthew’s church, now morphed by modern times into the Syrian and Iraqi Christian churches, is very hard pressed. Those residing in that region who inherited this teaching are being persecuted, starved, beheaded and killed. We may thus ask ourselves as inheritors of this message, do not we as the called church of our Lord have the responsibility to provide healing to them and others? Can we do this healing in the name of Christ our Lord? Let us rise to the challenge! Let us answer just as our Lord did to the questions of the Canaanite woman. Let us pray that the fruits of salvation be done to them as they desire.

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