Clean and Unclean

As far as I can remember, there is a wonderful song in the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ where the father Tevye sings about the sacredness of Tradition.

Deep down is his love for tradition, but then love steps in to force his hand. First one daughter after the other choose to marry outside of his hopes and expectations, and he is left bewildered and frustrated, as he bows to the love he sees in his daughters’ eyes.

He opts for their happiness, apart from the final daughter who falls in love with a Christian man. This he cannot accept, but eventually finds a way round to give his blessing by giving his family permission to say ‘Goodbye.’ to her.

This song came to mind as I read the first part of the gospel reading today. Here pure love comes head to head with the traditions of men. But the Jewish leaders and the scribes do not give at all to ‘Love’s’ demands, not like Tevye does.

A debate had arisen at the beginning of Matthew 15, because the Jewish leaders had observed that the disciples of Jesus had not washed their hands before they had eaten!

The Jewish leaders questioned this and began to argue that to please God, one must be clean before him ceremonially.

Jesus argued that cleanliness was more to do with the human heart, and not so much with meticulous adherence to rules and regulations…the externals!

To the scribes and Pharisees, there were two kinds of law :-

that which was written, in the form of scripture, and that which was added to over the years by various teachers.

The latter, the oral law, at the time of Jesus, had become just as binding!

So these laws, which had been passed down, set out in the finest detail of what was clean and unclean, and these laws were observed with great rigour by the Pharisees and scribes.

Rather like some compulsive disorder, Jews believed that hands had to be washed in a particular way or they weren’t really clean; a certain direction flow of water was important, one hand then two, then back again a half distance just to check etc.,

Many of the clean/unclean laws were built around the preparation and eating of certain foods, but some Jews also believed that they would become unclean if they touched the very dust walked upon by a Gentile foot.

( I wonder if they EVER believed themselves to be totally clean?)

Jesus was adamant, the rules they were advocating were totally irrelevant to one’s relationship to God.

‘No, he said, what comes out from the heart defiles people, things like evil intention, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands do not!

The internals were important and not the externals, he argued that true purity is not known by the mouths input, but by the mouth’s output; that evil words and evil actions are actually what really defile a person.

The Jewish leaders were offended by what Jesus had to say in this passage! ‘Scandalizo’ is the words used meaning repulsed, affronted or shocked!

Firstly they could quite clearly see that that he was rejecting their whole structure of faith and they must have been horrified with his comments.

Not only did he seem to be condemning Scribal and Pharisaic ritual and ceremonial religion, but to them, in effect , he was also wiping out large sections of the book of Leviticus.

Was Jesus therefore saying to them that ALL foods were clean?

Mark certainly thought so: in Mark 7. 19…there is a quote:-

‘in saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean?

I suppose Jesus was saying these rules could stand in matters of health and hygiene, in common sense and medical wisdom, but not as matters of religion!

They must have thought to themselves, ‘Who does he think he is?

But not only that Jesus even attacked their reputations too, and accused them of hypocrisy, for he quite bluntly pointed out that the scribes and the Pharisees twisted many rules to suit themselves and their own purposes. He accused them of giving God lip service only, and he claimed that their hearts were far from him.

Lip labour was lost labour.

No wonder Jesus wasn’t top in the popularity stakes, nor were they about to award him an Oscar for his performance.

They were furious.

As leaders of the Jewish people their lives should have been better than most, exemplary in fact, perhaps the pride and privileges of leadership just got in the way.

Jesus took the road of open confrontation with them, in an attempt to open blind eyes.

Sometimes this needs to be done.

Has our religion turned into a system of DO’ and DON’T’S or can we honestly say we are in a true and close relationship with God. Are our hearts absolutely clean?

In all the 99 beautiful names Muslims give to God; i.e. the merciful, the just etc., not one of them is ‘Father’. Our faith is quite unique in that Jesus showed the love of God for us as a parent Abba, and taught us how to express our love for him as his children.

As Christians we are called to offer our bodies as pleasing and acceptable LIVING sacrifices to God; to be in a love relationship with him. For in spiritual matters, we can rarely lead people into truth and wisdom or into the love of God when we have not searched and found him for ourselves.

Our speech and our own attitudes say a lot about what is in our hearts for others.

So often we feel safe with others who think the way we do and conform to our ideas, but we are quick to react to those amongst us who break with things familiar or do things differently or even worship a different way.

We should always pray to be able to recognise true purity of heart, and be welcoming of others whatever their personality or style or even belief.

What would we have thought of Jesus and his revolutionary comments had we been there as church elders?

True religion lies in our personal relationships and in our attitude to God AND our fellows.

It’s much easier to follow certain rules of cleanliness and abstain from certain foods, than it is to take up the real challenge of loving the unlovely and the unlovable. It’s much easier to discuss rather than go into action to help needy people at the cost of one’s own time and pleasure.

What matters to God is not so much how we act, but why we act; not so much what we do, but what we hide in the heart of our hearts.

Man sees the deed,

but God sees the intention.’

Thomas Aquinas.

So let us come before Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who sees and knows us better than we know ourselves, and let us confess our sins before him.

Read out all of Psalm 51

The second reading reminds me of Pride and Prejudice, where the hero Darcy has his eyes opened by the fiery resistance and plucky wit of a young woman called Elizabeth, or (Lizzie) who declines his offer to dance with him at the ball, after overhearing his proud comments.

Jesus in now in Gentile Territory: safe from the hostility of the Scribes and Pharisees., and also from the crush of the people, and Jesus encounters here such as person, a very brave and persistent woman.

She is a Canaanite, an enemy of the Jews, and she has a real problem because her daughter is possessed by a demon. She begs , she pleads to be heard.

Jesus sees in her a woman who is not put off by the fact that he is known as the Jewish Saviour, the Son of David; nor is she fazed by Jesus silence, nor the disciples comments to rid themselves of her, nor his statement of purpose, nor his offputting comments,

The first, a very proud and ‘stand offish’ comment,’ I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel!’

And the second…

‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!’

Sounds very much like prejudice to me…but then again it is very difficult to ascertain a twinkle in the eye in a written word, or even the correct tone of voice when reading a simple sentence.

Of course the word used ‘kunaria was not a street dog which roamed the street and probed in the rubbish heaps, no it was more in keeping with a household pet or pup.

Was Jesus sounding her out or playing for time, or perhaps he was testing her out by using the very words a Jew would have used…he may even have been repeating a phrase that he over heard the disciples use when they were asking him to get rid of her?

It’s hardly likely that he of all people should really want to send someone who is needy away packing.

But she is not deterred. She wants her daughter healed and this is the only man who can do it. She will not be put off, and so she replies in true Lizzie Bennett fashion,

‘Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’

Her reply seems tongue in cheek too, but she certainly scores a point for women, and a point for the Gentiles.

No-one else, apart from the Roman centurion receives such praise from Jesus lips as she does,

’Great is your faith!’

In other words ‘What a contrast to what I’ve just had to put up with!

In light of the previous passage where Jesus meets such opposition from the Jewish leaders about his teaching, here is a woman who comes in great humility and with a far greater faith in him, as one sent from God. She addresses him as Lord now, not the Son of David.

Her faith is rewarded…

In healing the woman’s daughter, Jesus reveals himself as the Gentiles Saviour too.

Here in this story there is such a shift in the scriptures, Jew coming close to Gentile, a miracle!

The time would come one day for the dividing wall of hostility between Gentile and Jew, to come down in the future church of Christ, and perhaps this event would no doubt be used as a test case for equality and regard for one another. We see in the second chapter of Ephesians remarks about the dividing walls coming down.

Would that all of our walls today would come down.

We too need to grab with both hands the crumbs of blessing.

We with all our pride and prejudices.

Let’s finally examine this woman’s approach. How did she get blessed?

1) She had tremendous love in her heart for her child. She made her child’s suffering her own.

2) She had faith, a faith which seemed to grow through contact. She began by calling him Son of David, the popular & political title and she looked on him with faith and saw that he was a great and powerful man. She ended up by calling him Lord, on her knees before him.

3) In her prayer requests she was in dead earnest, her prayer was an outpouring of the passionate desire of the soul. She would not take no for an answer.

4) She also had the gift of cheerfulness. She had a light hearted attitude in her persistence, and a cheerful faith. In comparison with those Jesus had just spoken with, she must have been a tonic.

Because of all these qualities she found an answer to her prayer.

What is our prayer today, what are we passionate about for God?

Let us come before him in the same attitude as that Canaanite woman who was to discover that having faith in the Messiah was the secret key to blessing.

But greater than any prayer for ourselves, should be the prayer that God’s will be done in us and through us for the building up of the people of God in the world, here in this church and in this local community at …….

Let us pray with vision and insight for God’s glory to be seen today at work in each one of us.

What is our passionate prayer?


By John Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community

From This is the day

By Neil Paynter

Wild Goose Publications