Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Food Fight?

A colleague observed that it was odd that in the shortest of the Gospel accounts Mark devotes more than half a chapter to what might be described as a food fight. The argument between Jesus and the Pharisees wasn't, of course, only about food, but about washing hands and other matters of religious custom. Mark may have devoted so much attention to this area of conflict because his own community was struggling with the question of whether one had to be kosher in order to be Christian, but I doubt it.

What I see at the heart of this story of conflict in Mark 7 is Jesus' hope that people will focus on what really matters in a life lived in friendship with God. There may be nothing wrong with the religious customs to which the Pharisees adhered, but focusing so intently, even exclusively, on them was, as a friend once put it, "majoring in the minors." Rather than focusing on one's own scrupulous religious observance, Jesus calls us to focus on "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." (Matthew 23:23)

I see this conflict as nothing new, but as one that had been part of the life of Israel for centuries. Jesus stood in the great prophetic tradition of Israel:
  • Of Isaiah: Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

  • Of Jeremiah: Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.

  • Of Amos: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

  • Of Micah: 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?

The great scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures Walter Brueggemann, in commenting on these words of Micah, said that we walk humbly with God not because God is so much greater than we are - which God is - but because that is how God walks with us. In the Incarnation, God became Immanuel, God with us, God with the last, the least, and the lost. And that is where God wants us to be as well.

George McLeod, founder of the Iona Community, called for this kind of engagement with the world, with the last, the least, and the lost when he wrote in Only One Way Left:

I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the clam that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles: but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek. And at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died, and that is what he died about and that is where Christ’s people ought to be, and what church people ought to be about.

At the center of the marketplace? Where are those places in the here and now that McLeod -or Jesus - might want to see the cross raised? There are many, but one which I see is the debate over health care reform. The issues are clearly too complex for me to come up with the perfect plan, but what strikes me about the debate as I have watched it is that there seems to be little evidence of compassion, of the prophet's concern for justice for the poor in it. I have read the comments of Christians who assert that it is absolutely wrong to take their hard-earned money and use it to give health care to people who haven't earned it! Comments like that are a far-cry from the words of Jesus, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." I have also found myself bristling when I hear the phrase socialized medicine. I never hear people speak of socialized education. or police and fire protection. or roads, or libraries. As a people we have decided that there are some things that need to be provided by all of us for all of us. Whether health care is one of them is still an open question, a question which we all can take part in answering. I hope that the answer we make as a people will reflect in no small measure the love of the One who is Immanuel, God with us, God with the last, the least, and the lost.

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