Inside(rs) and Outside(rs)
I have been asked by the Presbytery Resource Center director to lead a workshop this fall on “How to Read the Bible.” I thought of a couple of principles right away that I use: the first is: “Read Dirty.” Read with your feet firmly on the ground, covered with the dust of the world of the Bible. In other words, don’t first read the bible as if it were written in our times, our language, our part of the world. Rather, read it as much as you can with the eyes of the people who wrote it and who first read it.
Well, we have in front of us a text that tells us that after Jesus offended the Pharisees, he called a poor lady with a sick daughter a “dog.” And that was after ignoring her and telling her he was not sent to her kind of people.
Two questions come to mind: what in the world is going on? and, what does it have to do with me? These are the surface questions. The deeper questions that we all come to scripture asking are: what does God require of me, and how can I experience God’s help?
This text has a lot that directly applies to us in powerful ways, but to get to the gems here, we need to dig down into the soil of first century Palestine – so let’s start digging.
First, Jesus’ offensive words about food. Jesus says:
“Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”
The Pharisees were the serious bible teachers of their day. They knew what the bible said, they believed it, and they took it seriously. They wanted everybody to obey the commandments so that God would be able to bless them.
Kosher is clear
Nothing is as clear, in the Old Testament, let’s call it the Hebrew Bible, than the Kosher food laws. Some foods were clean, other foods were unclean. The unclean foods defiled the one who ate them: here is an example from Leviticus:
2 From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat. 3 Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud—such you may eat…. 7 The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8 Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you. (Lev. 11)
This is just a small example. The laws about clean and unclean go on and on. They include land animals, sea dwellers, birds and insects, all with their own classification system that makes them either clean or unclean.
The Importance of Kosher: identity
These food laws became hugely significant in Judaism. Because they made it almost impossible for Jews to eat with non-Jews, these food laws had the effect of making the Jewish community both identifiably different and highly exclusive. These laws became group boundary markers between Jews and Gentiles.
During the Maccabean wars of independence, Jewish martyrs died by long, slow, brutal torture, rather than break Kosher laws by eating unclean food. (1 Macc. 1:62-63; 4 Macc. 7:6)
Kosher no more
If you are standing on the soil of those times in that place, you can see just how radical and upsetting Jesus’ teaching was. He was basically saying that food laws are not the point at all. Jesus said:
“17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?”
So then, if it’s not unclean food that makes you unclean before God, what is it? Jesus says:
18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person….”
“Spiritual but not religious”
It is now common for people to say that they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” Most of the time, that means that they believe in a spiritual world, they sense
that the material world is not all that there is, they sometimes feel a presence that transcends our mortal world – so they are spiritual. But they are not religious. They get nothing out of organized religion. They don’t feel connected with God by means of saying creeds, singing hymns, or anything that happens inside a church.
To those people – maybe you? – I want to say that Jesus himself was spiritual, but had a huge problem with being religious. Jesus was constantly aware of the Spirit of God leading him, working through him, empowering him. But he had open conflict with the people that ran the temple, and with all kinds of religious practices, like Kosher laws.
Why? Because for Jesus, the central issue was not the outside, but the inside. The important questions was not what laws are you following, but what is going on in your heart.
For Jesus, it was not what goes into your mouth, like pork, that makes you unclean; it’s what comes out of your mouth – because that is what reveals the truth of your heart.
This is not about swearing
And no, Jesus is not talking about swearing! That is a huge mistake. Every culture has a set of words that it identifies as vulgar, and polite people are offended when they hear them. That is pretty trivial compared to what Jesus cares about.
Jesus cares about slander and false witness that can actually harm people. He cares about words that betray intentions to commit theft and murder. He cares about words that betray the intention to break up a marriage through sexual infidelity.
Words that come out of the mouth and reveal the evil in the heart are what matter, not food that goes into the mouth and through the digestive system.
Jesus: on the prophetic trajectory
Of course this offended the bible-teaching, bible-quoting, bible-breathing Pharisees. But Jesus was following a trajectory of “spiritual but not religious” that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible had marked out long ago. What, they asked is important to God? Is it the ritual? Is it the stuff that happens in the temple? Are animal sacrifices what God most wants from us?
Long ago, the prophet Micah asked and answered the question this way:
6 “With what shall I come before the LORD, …?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, …?
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6)
What does God want?
This is crucial for everyone of us. What does God want from us? He wants the true devotion of our hearts. He wants the kind of life that proceeds from a heart dedicated to God, who is Spirit. That kind of life will produce the fruit of justice and kindness in the real world of injustice and suffering.
The Insider vs. Outsider story
The second story is also an inside vs. outside story, or rather and insider vs. outsider story. But again, we need to read dirty: we need to read with our feet on the soil of that time and place.
Today, if I wanted to tell you a story about a “good Muslim,” I might have to start the story using the same stereotypes of Muslims that my audience believed, and lead them to an opposite conclusion. That’s what Jesus does.
Before we get the details, look down and see the dirt under our feet. Where are Jesus and the disciples when this story happens? Matthew tells us:
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
Jesus and the disciples are in Gentile territory now, not Jewish territory. Why did he go there? What does God have to do with outsiders?
Here is the setting:
22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
No one would be interested in this story if at first, Jesus didn’t conform to their stereotypes about “dirty, unclean, gentile” people, especially “second class women.” This is the opinion of the disciples too.
23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
Jesus then, evidently, expresses the Jewish exclusivism that the chosen people believed:
24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But this woman, who has already called Jesus both “Lord” and “Son of David” – which is exactly what Matthew wants us to believe about Jesus, then goes up and kneels before him, calling him “Lord” again:
25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
Those are the 3 words that express faith: “Lord, help me.” It is simply throwing yourself on the mercy of God. It’s falling backwards, believing that there are arms waiting to catch you. It’s trust.
Then comes the place in which Jesus implies that she is a “gentile dog”.
26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
He is getting everyone going, “Yes!” they say, “put her in her place! Give it to her!”
But she is not so easily put off, because she has a great need and a heart full of trust
27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Now the tables are turned. This “unclean” gentile woman has just expressed the ultimate level of trust, far beyond what anybody else in Matthew’s gospel has expressed! The ultimate outsider has the one thing that is needed before God: trusting faith.
28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Inside vs. Outside
Here again we see what is important to God: it is what is on the inside, not the outside. God’s family is composed of those who throw themselves on him in courageous trust that he will help them. Ethnic bloodlines have nothing to do with it.
She did not offer a sacrifice at the temple, she did not perform a ritual purification, she did not do anything “religious.” She did something profoundly “spiritual” – she trusted that Jesus was God’s means of getting help to her daughter.
Our rituals and the main point
We have inherited some rich, meaningful, beautiful traditions. We meet in a sanctuary, sing hymns, say prayers, stand, sit, and all kinds of things. It works for us, and it helps us. But this is not the point.
The point, that our Lord Jesus taught us, was to have our hearts full of committed trust in Jesus, God’s Son.
This is not at all merely individualistic, privatized faith. Hearts that are right will show themselves in what comes out of the mouth. The intentions of the heart of which the mouth will speak will follow the prophetic trajectory. We live as people who know what the Lord requires: that we “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”
We will show our trust in God as we learn to be open to people like that gentile lady, people whom we might have at one time excluded and despised, but now we see that even these people are welcomed to eat the food from the same table.