“But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.”
Today’s readings are rich with a particular flavor that seems like it might benefit from being cut with a bit of grace. It seems that, like us, the true believers in Moses and Jesus’ day needed to be reminded from time to time of the essence of holy practice and a warning not to get lost in the weeds of its details.
One can see how easily this can happen, even with righteous people. We forget that the neat little compact library of sacred texts that comprise our Bible today was not in this neat form for centuries.
Before the monasteries in Egypt and elsewhere started to compile various scrolls and codices into something like a coherent collection, and convocations and synods drew blood while arguing what should be included, sacred texts were composed in different languages, reflected teachings from different religions, and assumed social norms from different cultures. Like a good joke or a tried and true trick to keep the crows from eating your corn or your livestock from dying of a disease, sacred nuggets from a wide variety of times and places would move from culture to culture along with the spice caravans, and in each place, pick up some additional features that reflected the culture into which the foreign religious stories had arrived.
So, for example, in addition to dealing with the Ten Commandments, the further understanding of how to observe these ten laws had expanded to include over 600 other laws! And, just like today, folks are trying to do the best they can to follow them. Which brings us to:
“How come your disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat?”
I know it sounds like they are focused on sort of silly niceties; like, what does handwashing have to do with the kingdom of God? It’s not like washing your hands is one of the Ten Commandments!
But, I wonder if what is actually at the heart of their questioning is curiosity about which scriptures Jesus’ disciples are reading and want to know more.
And then Jesus answers with something that sounds like the opposite of what we’ve been saying for weeks now; that is, that we ARE what we take in to ourselves. And Jesus says, “No. What you take in to yourself is irrelevant. It’s what comes out of your hearts that does the real harm!”
But, how can something good come out if nothing good has gone in?
So now let’s look a little closer at this piece:
If we are taking in theology that is cobbled together from various times and places and treating it as though it were synchronous; i.e., all from a single source at a single time and place — rather than diachronic – cobbled together from different sources, different cultures, and from different times in history — then what will come out of us is an inaccurate interpretation and application.
It’s that combination that leads to the sin of “scrupulosity” that is, the hyper-vigilant focus on the law of God instead of a focus on the love of God.
The opposite of observing the law is not ignoring the law in this case, but rather filling the law with so much love for God that the various lines disappear because love for God has filled the entire space.
As Christians, we do believe that God has always acted throughout human history in every culture to make manifest the grace and sense of purposefulness of God for every life.
We also believe that, in Jesus of Nazareth, the fullness of all God’s actions down through history have come together. And, that the earlier laws – whether ten or six hundred thirteen — that governed our lives have all been summarized into two: Love the Lord with all your heart, and soul, and might and love your neighbor the same way you love yourself.
It doesn’t hurt to be reminded that religious ritual observance – whether for Christians, Jews, or Muslims – comes down to loving God and loving what God loves. The first part may not feel that hard, unless you’re going through a particular time in your life when you feel kind of angry or disappointed with God. Even then, as we know from other relationships, it is still possible to feel those emotions toward someone who we love. It’s that second part – loving other people – that seems to be always be returning us to a place that is hard to stay in.
The Hebrew word for this “returning” is teshuva.
Teshuva means to prayerfully turn back and take care of things. In Judaism, the entire month of Elul is given to this holy work. It reaches its climax in the ten days of awe that commence next Sunday on September 9, the beginning of the Jewish New Year Rosh HaShana.
During the ten days of awe that culminate with a day of fasting on Yom Kippur – the day of atonement, religious persons are encouraged to turn back and make every attempt to fix things, particularly in broken relationships but in other things as well, perhaps in one’s business dealings.
And some of the language that is a part of this holy labor of making things right in Judaism is echoed in today’s second reading, the letter to James:
“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
This is one of those “sacred nuggets” that has been passed from culture to culture and across religions because its value to restoring relationships is universal.
The philosopher Abraham Heschel said, “No word is ever God’s final word. A positive change in our behavior can always change God’s mind.”
Though it’s almost always a difficult and painful process, the goal of teshuvah is personal healing as well as healing of relationships. It is so true that great sins are like great possessions – both are difficult to give up. In fact, often the only way that many of us will take on the work of teshuva is that we reach the point of soul sickness, no energy, no joy, no rest, and no peace.
This soul sickness need not be terminal or even chronic. God’s power can help us do the work. We do not have to continue the narrative of a traumatic childhood or bitterness from past relationships or situations in which we were not treated fairly.
The process of holy turning back is a lifelong practice, a daily task and an ongoing duty.
Perhaps what is really the difficult challenge about loving others like we love ourselves is that we cannot give what we don’t have. So if we’re deficient in appropriate self-love, we will be unable to genuinely love others.
If this is where you feel you are, and that you are trapped in a narrative of shame and guilt, then take heart. Let the first holy labor of your teshuva, your turning back, be to receive God’s forgiveness and absolution for whatever burdens you have continued to carry, and to begin to claim your rightful temperament as a beloved child of God, with a life of purpose awaiting your participation.
The Rev. Cynthia Park, LPC, PhD
Sunday, September 2, 2018 Year B