“Listen to me all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international non-profit group that promotes interfaith cooperation, tells this story. Listen:
There is a story about a Christian minister living abroad during World War II. His congregation sends him money so that he can return home for Christmas. When he doesn’t come back, they write and ask him why. He says that he used the money to help a group of Jews escape Hitler’s death camps and flee to safety.
“But they’re not even Christian,” writes one member of his congregation.
“Yes, I know.” the minister responds, “But I am.
Patel goes on to say, “All religions have both types of people – the tribal and the transcendent. The tribal type see in the particular narratives of their tradition a narrowing of concern, and therefore care only about the people who look like them, talk like them, and pray like them. On the other hand, the transcendent see in the same particularity a universalizing of care, and therefore focus their energies on all people, especially groups most in need, regardless of creed.”
I was reminded of this story from Patel when reading the gospel for this morning and continuing to get my mind and heart around the large issues that confront us within the church and as a nation. It is one of many passages that show Jesus widening the circle of inclusion by challenging the narrowness of religious folk.
This story has a particular place and time, an historical location, and we need to be aware of the particularity lest we miss the larger implications.
As Patel reminds us, “All religions have both types of people, the tribal and the transcendent.” So we should not use this text as a proof text to show that Jews are tribal and Christians are transcendent and therefore have a better religion. Or that Jews only care about the outside of things. I would point you to the writings of that wonderful Jewish rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel who was one of the most transcendent thinkers of the 20th century.
And let’s face it, our own faith tradition is full of folks who have narrow interpretations of how it must be, how one should act, pray, worship, believe, and think. At times I think the majority of those of us who call ourselves Christian, if we were alive during Jesus’ day, probably would have sided with the Pharisees. I mean, who wants ambiguity? Don’t you just want to know what you are supposed to do?
And given a plain reading of this particular text – really – don’t you think the Pharisees have a point?
I have been to marketplaces. And darn right I am washing the food! I still tell my teenage kids to wash their hands, and wash the grapes, and rinse the apples. I have a bottle of Purell in my desk and after all the hand shakes and hugs, I sneak back in my office and slather my hands and sometimes I want to down a shot glass of it! (Nothing against any of you, really, don’t get me wrong, you’re all delightful – but oh, those germs you carry!)
It’s funny that many think that serving communion by intinction is a very unhealthy way to serve the sacrament. But all that hugging and kissing really is a far more greater health risk. That is true!
Anyway, not to digress any more, because the point of this passage is really not about cleanliness.
The point of this passage is about what it means to be holy. And you notice when Deanne read the passage, the word “defiled” means more than just unclean. When you’re defiled, you’re not being holy, you’re not moving towards God, not being pleasing to God; you are sinful. Being “defiled” is more than just germy, it implies sinfulness!
It is an agitation to you and to me – that when we place too much emphasis on the details, we move along a path that narrows and tribalizes our faith. We lose humility as we seek certainty. We lose the lightness of being under the weight of seeking divine approval. Our horizons are limited as we close in our focus.
It is in our nature – it is human – to want to have answers, to do the right thing, to seek approval. We want to follow rules. And that is not inherently wrong. But you can see, I hope, that such concerns taken to an extreme really block off avenues of grace, and stunt development.
What is fine for a six-year-old is not so fine for a 50-year-old. And think about history: the great breakthroughs of history, both scientific and social, were not made by people playing it safe and following the rules. But rather by transcendent thinkers who trusted visions and risked mistakes but continued to move forward toward the hope. Think of Galileo. Think of Darwin. And Edison and Ford. M.L. King, Sojourner Truth, Harvey Milk, and a whole bunch of “normal” folks that you and I come in contact with daily. Always seeking to extend the avenues of grace and of intellect and inclusion.
The Pharisees in this text represent good people, from all faith traditions, who want to follow rules, narrow approaches and dismiss innovation or change.
Jesus challenged them, and challenges and reminds you and me: make your rules, but remember that God seeks not behavers, but believers. Not behavers, but believers.
And by “believers,” I do not mean people who blindly follow what they don’t understand or agree with intuitively. But by “believer” I mean one who trusts, who throws their lot upon a graceful, loving, reconciling God. Believing means we’re willing to live trusting that we can’t get outside of God’s grace for us. And so this inner location of trust and hope moves us into an outer life of transcendent thinking, transcendent action, and hospitality to all.
Verse 14 is worthy of a re-read “Listen to me all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out.”
It is not controlling the ideas that go in, it is preparing the heart to receive and interpret. I think there is a direct correlation between how our hearts are prepared and what comes forth. Prepare in hope and you get creativity. Prepare in cynicism and you get fear. Live with violence and it takes a miracle to break the patterns.
Fear, mistrust, and insecurity leads to all sorts of personal and socially destructive behaviors which Jesus names: adultery, avarice, fornication, envy, slander, pride, folly. This doesn’t exhaust the list of sin and I would like to add a few: cynicism being the first addition. But, the list of sins given, all arise from a dysfunctional being that places the self in the center.
It isn’t however the sin itself that Jesus is most concerned about here, but the condition of the heart. How is your heart being prepared? Jesus isn’t concerned about tribal rules, he calls us into transcendent ideas of hospitality, justice, joy, grace that allow us to see beyond the particularity of our time and our space and to think larger than what we can see at any one time.
It is in our collective self-interest as Christians, our national self-interest, our universal self-interest to move beyond tribalism to transcendence, from narrowness to broad imagination, because there is simply too much at stake. Whenever people are seeking to expand horizons and dream dreams and see visions that arise out an interior excitement of possibility, grace happens and imagination is stirred.
I can’t help but think that this is what Jesus is really getting to and really agitating us to consider.
I believe that I witnessed this transcendence a couple of weeks ago at a gathering of business folk, entrepreneurs, non-profit directors, CEO’s, academics, students and a few faith leaders sprinkled in. We were all part of Mayor Jackson’s Sustainable Cleveland forum that was held in the Convention Center. Mark Chupp was another member of that group.I hope you read about it in the paper last week – we got a lot of good press.
We were there to move towards the vision of making Cleveland the “green city on a blue lake;” To lift up possibilities of leveraging the abundance of assets of our region to move into a sustainable and hopeful future. One of the things that came up very early is that we Clevelanders are beset by a negative mind set, a pessimistic view of what can happen, or better what cannot. We can be very tribal.
Led by Dr. David Cooperrider, our hearts and imaginations were prepared to be creative and transcendent by imagining what our region might look like in 2019 if we really could use all the assets.
Let me tell you it became a kind of religious revival. The energy was so good, and the ideas were so creative, and we transformed this region in our imaginations. And then working groups built prototypes of new businesses leveraging the work force that we have, bringing green industry, repairing the breeches in our city and to become more healthy and whole.
And we heard speakers who were not concerned about keeping the rules and washing the hands but were creatively making commitments to new ways. The most impressive was Ray Anderson, a CEO of his company Interface who makes floor tiles. It has always been an industry that uses petroleum and lots of it. In 1994 Ray Anderson decided to turn his business green and since then his waste has gone down by 85% and his profits have doubled. And it was Ray Anderson who most influenced the CEO of Wal-Mart to go green. And that big box store has declared publicly that their goal is to become waste free. This is transcendent thinking. And it got me thinking: Why is the business community doing this and not the church community?
At last the environmentalists and capitalists are at the same table. Conservative and Liberal are breaking bread. Evangelical and Progressive are lying together like the lion and the lamb. This is really powerful stuff going on. It is transforming our society.
And yet the chorus of cynics says that climate change is just a fad. And special interest groups roll their eyes and say, “Let’s go drill on some more park land.”
But this is a matter of the spirit, of the heart, of the mind, of the imagination. And Christians should be at the forefront of pressing innovation and transcendent thinking. Care for our environment and the sustainable use of our resources – so that our children and grandchildren will not be burdened – is a beautiful, graceful, spirit-filled, and biblical task from Genesis 1:1 to the end of Revelation.
And so I can’t help but sense that in the midst of the crises that confront us as a people: health care, climate change – do we always say “no” out of apprehension and mistrust, narrowing our vision around self-protection which really is an attribute of tribalism – we simply cannot trust the Other? Or, do we think broadly and position our best selves, mind, heart, wealth and spirit towards the possibility of transcendence – of breaking free and out.
It is risky, no doubt. It is scary. Our hands might get dirty. We might break a few well-established expectations and traditions. We might turn over a few tables. But that’s pretty Biblical too. And we might even make more than a few mistakes that we will have to clean up and say “I’m sorry” for afterward.
But don’t you want to be held accountable to the spirit of Jesus Christ? Really. Don’t you want to allow yourself to let go, to let go, and to be drawn into the call of the upward way which always moves you from the narrow beam of fear, onto the highway of joy, the thruway of grace and hospitality and peace?
Let’s be transcendent, and not tribal.