Step 2 – Don’t Let the Rules Get in the Way

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father.So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
– Matthew 15:1-20

This is the second step in Matthew’s account of how to care for and feed multitudes. The first step, Have Faith, was worked out in the disciples’ crossing of the sea with the winds against them. But now, safely on the other side, the disciples see that the healing of the people will immediately bring opposition from those who want to enforce the rules.

The Pharisees and scribes are supposed to be taking care of the people in their charge. Instead, they are looking for excuses to criticize those who are doing the work while they hide behind rules they have invented to justify their own position and advantage. Notice that though the work had been Jesus healing (Matthew 14:34-36) the Pharisees and scribes open their opposition with what at first seems a totally unrelated issue: they criticize Jesus’ disciples for not following the rules about washing their hands before eating. Again with the eating! Remember, this is about feeding people.

Jesus’ answer brings the point home: they are letting the rules get in the way of what needs to be done. Specifically, Jesus sites an instance where the Pharisees use the rules to exempt themselves and others for providing for the needs of fathers and mothers. The commandment applies so long as the “honor” is understood in the abstract. But another rule applies when something substantive must be done. The same is the case for washing of hands – a ceremonial washing. (Germs and personal hygiene in the sense we know it today hadn’t been invented yet.) If you take up all your time and resources (water) trying to get the ceremony right, you’ll never get around to what’s important – doing the work, feeding the people. It’s this stalling, beating around the bush with ceremony, standing on traditions, that keeps the disciples, then and now, from doing what Jesus is calling them to do. And it’s the continuing hesitation to stand up and call out the rule-enforcers, who still today stand on the pretense of abstractions, that holds modern disciples back from doing what they need to do.

Against the sticklers for rules, Jesus wants his disciples to be able to focus on whose rules? Are these really God’s rules? Or are they someone else’s? And who do these rules in question benefit? Jesus says you’ll know whether someone is holy or damned by what they do for the good of others, not by how meticulously they follow procedure all the while stepping on others to get ahead and to look good themselves.

To care for and feed multitudes, disciples must ignore the rules people will always be making up to distract them from doing the actual work. Multitudes can be fed, but someone needs to actually roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, and feed them. And you can’t get your hands dirty if you’re constantly going back to wash them.

Caring for and feeding the multitudes is bound to raise the hackles of the rule-makers. They are bound to come up with reasons to make you think (and make others think about you) that you’re doing the wrong thing. Jesus demonstrates that the second step, after addressing your own self-doubt, is to have the courage to break the rules that others have made and called sacred, especially when those rules are unjustly skewed to the advantage of the rule-makes and to the disadvantage of those in need.

Time and again, the greatest things have happened because someone decided not to follow the rules. This was behind the civil disobedience and non-violent resistance of the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is what was behind Gandhi. The care and feeding of multitudes is possible for the average disciple, but it will always make people in high places angry.

Your turn:

Whose rules are getting in the way of your doing what Jesus needs you to do? What rules are you hiding behind? And what would it take for you to break them? The disciples point out to Jesus that the Pharisees are offended at what Jesus said. Are you willing to risk offending powerful people to do what is right? Are there some rules you would not be willing to break? Why?

Tomorrow: Step 3 – Make the Enemy Your Friend

Step 1 – Have Faith

Christ Walking on Water, Henry Ossawa Tanner
Christ Walking on Water, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
– Matthew 14:22-33

As Matthew tells it, the care and feeding of multitudes happens twice. Once, already in Matthew 14:13-21, and again, in Matthew 15:32-39. What takes place between the first time something happens and the second instance is key to how the instance is meant to be understood. Like explaining a magic trick or the solution to a math problem: first, I show you the trick, then I explain how the trick is done, then I show you the trick again. The object is for you to be able to do it yourself.

Between these we have three scenes:

  1. The crossing of the sea (in which our present story takes place)
  2. The events at Gennesaret. There are two of these:
    1. The controversy with the Pharisees and scribes (vv. 14:34 – 15:9)
    2. The teaching moment (vv. 15:10-20)
  3. The argument with the Canaanite woman (vv. 15:21-28)

Matthew is trying to teach us how the trick is done in three steps. Today the first step: you’ve got to cross the sea when the wind is against you.

It’s well established that crossing the sea is more than just crossing the sea. The sea represents the chaotic barrier between the current situation and its resolution, between where the people are and where they are “destined” to be. We have seen water used this way in countless other instances in the Bible itself:

  • The river flowing out of Eden;
  • The flood;
  • Moses in the bulrushes;
  • Crossing the Red Sea;
  • Crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land;
  • Elijah crossing the Jordan on the way to his ascension (2 Kings 2:6ff);
  • Jonah and the whale;
  • Jesus at his baptism

The list goes on, but the symbolic use of water in this way transcends Biblical literature: The Odyssey, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Moby Dick.

So the disciples crossing the stormy sea is immediately to be understood as an epic crossing. And the first step toward the ability to care for and feed the multitudes turns out to be crossing the stormy sea of doubt. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Not “Why did you fear?”

The reason Peter was sinking is that “he noticed the strong wind and became frightened.” But the reason Peter got out of the boat was that he doubted who Jesus was: “If it is you, command me to come to you.” After it is all said and done, Jesus will ask Peter (Matthew 16:13ff), “Who do you say that I am?” It is a question of identity here, and while fear is to be expected, what Jesus demands is faith.

But now, we need to get straight what that faith is. It is emphatically not the kind of checking your brain at the door in order to believe the ridiculous. Faith is not about suspending the laws of physics to do parlor tricks. Remember, the point, the trick Matthew is trying to demonstrate, is not to show the disciples how to be able to walk on water; it’s to show the disciples how to be able to care for and feed the multitudes.

The goal, the instructions Jesus gave the disciples at the outset was to “go on ahead to the other side.” The goal of step 1 is to get across with the wind against you, to proceed in spite of fear, and when you see Jesus in the middle passage, to recognize him.

In other words, the challenge of this step has to do with getting through the internal resistance that arises when you undertake Kingdom projects. In their seeing Jesus as a ghost, the disciples are dealing with their self doubts, as surely as Hamlet’s self-doubt conjures up the ghost of his father, or Scrooge conjures up Marley. The doubt that must be overcome is not doubt about Jesus, but self-doubt. Once you can say who you are, then you will be able to say who Jesus is. (And this is exactly the opposite of the usual drivel about needing to figure out who Jesus is and then Jesus will tell you the rest.) Peter figures out who he is, and only then can he confess Jesus is the Messiah. To do the really great kinds of things Jesus wants his disciples to do, you need to know the power of faith rooted in being sure of your own identity. Without that, there’s no use in going on to steps 2 (resistance from people who are supposed to be for you) and step 3 (resistance from people who are supposed to be against you).

People will try anything to avoid confronting their own self-doubt. Sometimes, convincing ourselves that we can suspend the laws of nature and calling that faith is just easier. But Jesus wants us to know that the first step toward doing great Kingdom work is to learn to have faith – in yourself.

What distracts you from overcoming your internal resistance? What ghosts are you living in terror of? Where do you find Jesus in the middle passage?

It’s Not Rocket Science

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
– Romans 10:5-15

To make sense of this passage, you need to know that Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 30:12-14. Here it is:

It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

First the context for the quotation from Deuteronomy. The people of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness around the Sinai peninsula for 40 years and they are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Moses is recapping the Law as it has been given to them over these 40 years of wilderness time. Entering and staying in the Promised Land, as Moses outlines it, is contingent upon the people continuing in obedience to this Law. It’s a covenant, similar to the kinds of agreements between a king and a king’s subjects. Or, perhaps similar to the kind of agreement parents make with their grown children who can’t seem to move out of the house: “You can live here, but as long as you’re under my roof, even though you’re all grown up now, you still have to live by my rules.”

Moses is recapping the law, the rules these people are required to live by if they want to continue to live in this place, and by way of assurance, tells them, “Look, this is not really that hard. You know what you are required to do, and you don’t need anyone to go to heaven to get it, nor do you need to travel to some far away place across the sea. You don’t need anyone to tell you what to do. Just talk it over together and follow your heart.”

So much for Deuteronomy. Paul is re-applying this same idea to following Jesus. In Romans 10, Paul is in the middle of trying to explain why the Jews won’t follow the Jesus program. He had concluded in the previous chapter that they couldn’t follow the Mosaic law “because they didn’t strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works.” (Romans 9:32). In other words, they didn’t take Moses’ advice to talk it over and consult their hearts.

In these verses, Paul links that “failure” to follow the law to a similar failure in the Christian program. You don’t need to look to the heavens for advice (or wait for Christ to return), nor do you need to search the depths of the earth (you don’t have to bring Jesus back from the dead on your own). You can talk it over and follow your heart. It’s not rocket science. You don’t need to be a professional theologian to follow Jesus. In fact, you’re probably better off if you’re not. Everyone and anyone can do it. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” between the thoroughly indoctrinated and the rube on the street.

That said, however, you can’t just go do whatever you want and call it Christian. Anyone can work the Jesus program, but you have to know what the Jesus program is. So the last few verses here affirm the importance of those who bring the gospel. Somebody has to keep the Jesus story alive by re-telling it.

So, here’s the question:

In what ways have you been over-thinking the Jesus program? And, where do you find a community to talk it over and consult your heart about things? And, after you’ve talked it over and consulted your heart, what do you see is the Jesus program in your part of the world?

Extra credit:

If you’re Christian, how would you (or can you) explain this passage to a Jew? Or, if you’re Jewish, how do you explain to a Christian where Paul went wrong in his assessment of the Jewish situation?

Behind Door Number 3 – Free Joseph

Slave Market in Zanzibar, Tanzania
Monument to the Slave Market in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Photo credit: "Irene2005"

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him….

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’“ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
– Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The second and third paragraphs bring together two versions of this story. In the first, Reuben gets to be the one to save Joseph’s life. In the second, Judah gets to be the “hero.” But neither brother is a beacon of light here. Reuben is a crass opportunist, hoping to be the one to gain advantage over the others by “proving” his loyalty to their father in the act of delivering his favorite back safe and sound – except then it all goes wrong. Judah’s appeal is not much better. What kind of moral argument is: “Let’s not kill him, since he’s our brother, let’s just sell him”?

And don’t let the story’s opening justify what these brothers did. Trying to argue that Joseph somehow deserved what he got for being so uppity doesn’t cut the mustard. They sold him as a slave. Period. The story ought to be the occasion for us to think about how we have sold out our brothers (and sisters), and how we desperately try to rationalize our choices to do what we know is absolutely unconscionable. If you want a three point sermon, you can focus on three typical rationalizations:

  1. They deserved what they got. Sometime in the past, someone brought a bad (false) report about us or someone close to us. They upset the family’s (read also office’s or church’s or nation’s) sensibilities. They were too insolent, offensive, snooty, proud, or ambitious. So, we had to do what we had to do.
  2. I was just doing what was necessary to get ahead. See a need, fill a need. Joseph doesn’t want to die, Jacob wants his son back. I can persuade them to hold off, and then I can leverage that into a better deal down the road. It’s not just back door deals in business and politics.
  3. It was the lesser of two evils. Except that most of the time, we tell ourselves that we are choosing between two evils, when those two evils aren’t the only options. You didn’t really have to choose between one or the other. You could have chosen door number 3 – free Joseph. The average is the enemy of the good.

I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I’m just saying that if we can learn anything from this, it’s that no matter how you try to make it seem right, or justify it later on, selling someone out is still selling them out. And selling out always comes at a catastrophic human cost.

Today there are more people in slavery worldwide than at any time in history, as many as 27 million. They make the cocoa that goes into your Hershey’s chocolate bar. They make your Converse All-Star shoes. They are forced into the sex “industry” and to wage war as child soldiers. Their lives are no happier than the children memorialized in Zanzibar. We can tell ourselves that there’s nothing we can do. But that’s a rationalization, too. To do nothing, and to say nothing, is to be one of the other 9 brothers in this story, who are never mentioned by name, who said nothing, who went along to get along, and did nothing to stop the unconscionable from happening.

I wonder how many preachers will have the guts to say something about it this Sunday. What will you say? What will you do?