By Rev. Jacob Kanake – Today, this sermon is about our traditions vs. our Christian faith. The online dictionary defines tradition as a long-established action or pattern of behavior in a community or group of people. Often, tradition is handed down from generation to generation. And faith is strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. Whereas every tribe has their tradition, Christian faith arises from taught Christian doctrines and its rituals such as baptism and sacrament. Faith is also a gift from Christ. And Jesus spreads the Good News to the non-Jews and heals a Gentile in a foreign country. The Gospel is for all believers.
Matthew today explains how the Jewish tradition evolved and found itself in sharp contrast with Christian faith. The Jewish tradition was written down by Moses (Mosaic law) and later was written down by the Scribes. The Pharisees (Jewish elders) made sure everyone observed the Mosaic traditions. In this reading, Jesus is having an intense conversation with the Scribes and the Pharisees, the supporters and promoters of the Jewish traditional hierarchy; they came to accuse Jesus’ disciples of violating the food law. The tradition was to wash hands before eating meals.
These Scribes and Pharisees were from Jerusalem, the holy city, the capital city, the judicial headquarters and by all standards, a modern city where people from small cities and remote villages went to shop, seek medical treatment or religious education and to worship in the temple. One would expect people from a modern city to be better informed than others. But, Jesus found them worse than others. They applied Mosaic law where it fit their plans; they were tyrannical; they used Mosaic law to oppress and force common Jews into obedience.
Jesus knew the Scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites who asked people to do things they themselves were unable to do. Jesus did not allow these hypocrites to accuse his disciples and make them unfit for the public for his mission; if Jesus did not strongly challenge the accusers, his disciples would have been condemned for disobeying the fifth commandment (disobeying elders) and isolated from the public until they paid a fine and purified/cleansed themselves in the temple. That is why Jesus exposed the leaders’ inability to keep the Mosaic law. Since the Pharisees were not ready to be challenged, the disciples got scared, but Jesus reassured them by drawing illustrations about the plant’s growth, food digestion and thoughts from the heart.
The disciples continued to speak with Jesus indirectly so that Jesus would either retract his rebuke of the Pharisees and his teaching, or offer them a detailed explanation or modify the teaching. Jesus knew his new teaching was in direct confrontation with the old teaching but his disciples perhaps felt less equipped. Therefore, turning to the disciples, Jesus asked them, “Don’t you understand?” and they still did not understand; they were fearful, so he encouraged them not to fear and not to evade any truth or duty. Jesus made it clear that concealing of the truth, and the indulgence of populist evil deeds and any corruptive ways, makes a disciple of Christ less of a follower and ineffective as a servant of Christ. Christians must own the truth and do their Christian duty and if anyone is offended, it is her/his own fault.
Some American traditions may be harmful like the Jewish tradition of washing hands. One of the American traditions is slavery, which began in 1619 and was abolished in 1863 by president Abraham Lincoln. The slavery tradition, though abolished, exists today in different forms. This nearly 400-year-old oppressive tradition needs to go. It is time to let it go! Modern Americans must say NO to the old ways and indirect system of oppression.
When speaking of this vice, I am aware not every American owned or benefited from having a slave at home or place of work. And I am also aware that most Americans who owned slaves have since self-cleansed themselves by speaking out against the practice. and they have moved with newfound freedom of their mind. However, we have a clear majority of Americans who have not come to terms with freeing themselves from indirectly oppressing others; they want to keep benefitting from the systematically oppressive system, a system that denies minorities housing and economic, social and political freedom.
Those who continue to protect and to continue to improve this longstanding tradition of oppressing others are not doing it with God’s blessings (Acts 5:38). The practices that are not divinely instituted will die of themselves, or they will be openly challenged by those who honestly feel it is their God-given duty to reform humanity; they might be among the Christian believers. Like the parable of tares, such ungodly systems will be bundled for the fire. What has become of the Pharisees and their hand-washing traditions today? The tradition is mostly long abandoned; but the gospel of truth is alive and it is still going strong 2,000 years later.
The human-made systems and their followers always take time to die. An example is patriarchy that oppresses women; it has been a long-standing tradition, but in many parts of the world today woman have become free individuals. In these societies, women decide when to marry, when to have children, and when to keep the marriage to let it “die.” Today, women choose the type of profession or friends to have. Few years ago, we did not have many women in senior positions or places of power. Today, the government of Rwanda’s majority is women.
We are witnessing the last vestiges of the racial oppression in America today. I have heard from many people who do not like the racist speeches and they are joining the freedom movements. The image to illustrate my feeling on racist speeches is the skunk’s poop; its smell shocks the victim. I and many people resent it! I wish I could switch off my brain or put in long-lasting earplugs.
But the last kicks of a dying animal can inflict damage to those who are nearby, and that can be a lasting damage. This week I heard several warnings on the political environment such as the Holocaust survivor (Sonia K) when she was being interviewed by CNN. Sonia said, “When the Holocaust broke, everyone was silent. The Holocaust took place because individuals, groups and nations made decisions to act or not to act. People were quiet then, but we must not be quiet again. Now we know better. We must all commit to making the world a better, kinder and more understanding place. Perhaps it is as simple as speaking out when you see something wrong, saying ‘I know better,’ but, please never be a bystander or a perpetrator.…Take active part in standing against [evils]…being promoted today or we could find ourselves repeating a regrettable history. We all need to be on guard and resist and fight.”
Some of these rallies promote fear and hatred and many people are now speaking. Mitt Romney advises people to tune their language because “it can cause racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast hearts of American to mourn.” There are genuine politicians who are concerned, although others might use the situation for their political benefit.
People of faith need to take note of what is happening and voice their feelings. Christ was forceful with his disciples when he asks them, “Don’t you understand?” Perhaps they did not! By asking this question, Christ expects from believers some degree of knowledge, grace, and wisdom. But that understanding comes with truly being a Christian. Racial bias persists this long because practicing Christians either did not realize it was evil to own another human being, or to mistreat another person, or did they ignore Christ’s doctrine of love? Did they love selectively? Why did it take this long for Christians to understand the doctrine of love, the teachings of Christ alongside the American Golden Rule or Constitution—created equal?
The reprieve for those who do not love with Christ’s love is that they may be forgiven. Christ’s forgiving aspect can be witnessed by how he treated the disciples despite their flaws: Jesus did not abandon them. Perhaps Christ did not abandon racist people. Christ may have walked with them though disapproving their practice of hatred and their dullness. In his mercy, Christ will not cast evildoers off, but he pities them and continues to teach them lessons of love until they will finally love! (Luke 24:25-27).
In conclusion, Jesus reminds us that our secular traditions affect our faith. Jesus uses the example of the zealous Pharisees on the tradition of washing hands to show that human tradition, however treasured, will end but the Good News will remain. We are also reminded today that God is concerned with the human heart, not physical food that goes into the body. Jesus is concerned with the human heart, the good thoughts that can fully influence or affect the entire life. And the Prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 8:7) says the heart is the source of all sin/evil, though not everything comes out of the mouth like a plan to kill or to steal arises from human thoughts/heart. When we allow our mind and conscience to be defiled by sin/evil thoughts, it makes everything else so. The daily reflection on thoughts may help to avoid evil actions.
There are also church traditions that were formulated by the ancient church leaders/fathers and councils and some of them are not supportive of the faith today; Christ calls for those church traditions to be reformed lest they keep believers away from participating in the life of the church.
In many parts of the world, the church is being challenged for speaking against political, economic and social injustice in society. Today many American churches are more than aware of the systemic policies that are designed to affect the minority today, but sadly the same system also affects the majority. For instance, the debates on health care, food stamps, unemployment, the drug epidemic and mental health issues affect American people whether white or black, although in varying degrees.
May the inclusive Gospel of Christ heal all people despite their color, race, political affiliation, or economic status. The healing of the Gentile (Canaanite woman’s daughter) is an indication that Christ’s mission is for all who believe. In Christ, they’re neither a Jew nor a Gentile. No comparison of one person to another. God is calling us today to dismantle all racial systems and outdated church human-made beliefs that promote racial bias because they are contrary to Christ’s teachings on the love of a neighbor.