Today's eMo is really two different meditations on texts that will be read in many churches this Sunday. The first is the usual sermon preparation eMo. The second, intended for preachers who wish to focus their congregations' attention on the Church's response to human suffering, explores an aspect of the work of Episcopal Relief and Development. As with all the eMos, peachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.
The Letter of the Law
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.
But wait -- the laws about washing things were God's commandment, weren't they? Aren't they in the Book of Leviticus? Which commandment were the Pharisees "abandoning," then? Weren't they were trying very hard to keep commandments?
They were. Because the gospel writers always set them against Jesus, we get the idea that the Pharisees were hypocritical bad guys. Maybe some of them were. But the point of being a Pharisee was to be faithful, as faithful as possible to the law of Moses. That wasn't a bad goal; it was a good one.
But faith begins to die when it becomes nothing more than a set of rules. A faith that focusses only on rules gets in the way of the relationship the rules were designed to protect; we can't hear God speaking to us in the present, so absorbed are we in our efforts to embody perfectly what God has said to us in the past.
The hardest thing about moral choice is its fluidity. New occasions really do teach new duties, but we keep trying to apply the old ones, hoping against hope that we can find a system that will always work the same, giving us the right answer in every situation. But no. God is a god of the living, not just of the dead, of the present and the future, not just the past. God is here right now, as well as yesterday or two thousand years ago. We must take the past into account, but we can no longer live there.
The spiritual alertness this requires of us can be taxing. Ethical discernment is hard work. We must argue and think, talk and listen, change our minds, go back and unchange them. We must develop a taste for humble pie. No wonder we'd rather just look up the letter of the law and follow it. It would be easier on us.
Love God with everything in you. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the others hang on these two. The weight of them all must never be allowed to crush them.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
And here is the ER&D meditation:
The Washing of Hands
For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it.
-- Mark 7:3-4
Often, people who want our religion to be more logical than it is will maintain that the dietary laws and cleanliness codes of ancient Israel were about sanitation. They try to argue that shellfish were forbidden to the Hebrews because they are dangerous without refrigeration, or that the injunction against boiling a kid in its mother's milk was really a practical response to the problem of unpasteurised dairy products.
This is unlikely. They were a means of maintaining Israel's separateness, not her cleanliness. To this very day, observant Jews and Muslims shape their daily life around their strictures. Most will tell you that they do not find the rules onerous: rather, they find them reassuring. Through them, they connect with the past of their people, and they connect to God through them, as well. Whatever their orgins, rules can help people to be who they are.
So the Israelites' handwashing was not primarily about sanitation. But we do now know, as they could not know then, that simply washing one's hands is one of the largest factors in the prevention of disease. Worldwide, diarrhea kills more children under the age of five than any other cause -- ten million will die of it before the year is over, the vast majority of them in developing countries. Children's bodies are small: it doesn't take long for an infection to overwhelm them. But educating mothers and village leaders in developing countries in very simple practices -- washing hands thoroughly before food preparation, before eating, after using the the toilet. Along with mosquito netting and medicine, Episcopal Relief & Development trains village volunteers to educate each mother in a village in this simple thing -- the washing of hands, to save her children's lives.
To learn more about ER&D or to make a donation, visit www.er-d.org or telephone 1-800-334-7626, ext 5219.