We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers From Prison (70 years ago)
Religion gets messy and confusing when we become obsessed with our status before a judging Creator. Are there certain hoops we must jump through in order to be pure, clean & righteous? Is God pissed at us all until we perform the proper transaction, whether prayer or pilgrimage or penance? 500 years of Protestant faith has twisted this concept into even more confusion. We are "justified by faith alone," the Reformers taught the world back in the 16th century and beyond. "Don't try to work your way to Heaven," my Evangelical teachers and pastors taught me during the last couple decades of the 20th century. It's all about receiving grace, they kept assuring me.
But grace is cheap when it is simply flashed as a badge to meet requirements to be in the Presence of the Divine. Instead of the classic Protestant battle pitting "faith" versus "works," in this Gospel episode Jesus schleps away any focus on outwardly ritualistic purity & cleanliness for a mission-oriented commitment to what "proceeds from the heart," a lifestyle void of evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. Twice in Matthew's Gospel Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea's exhortation to "mercy" & an intimacy with God instead of sacrifices and burnt-offerings, classic attempts to curry favor with God over the generations.
Jesus' focus on the heart was not an altar-call of pietistic regime-change, an invitation to make Jesus the personal Lord & Savior of our hearts. Instead, with the help of God's strength, energy & wisdom, he was calling disciples to pledge allegiance to the hard work of getting to the root of our sin. This will take a mixture of mindfulness meditation & meetings, not miracles & magic. Prayer & daily surrender are important, but transformation doesn't just happen. Jesus didn't want to just forgive the symptoms. He yearned for a complete overhaul of the systems.
Jesus knew that humanity would never find real liberation from our sin in a ritual at a religious building. After all, our weakness & waywardness doesn't just wash away, whether through baptism or burnt offerings. We must take inventory of our cyclical pain and the coping mechanisms we've developed from our earliest years, when we picked up habits of the heart that tend to haunt us the rest of our lives.
From my early years, I learned to seek out love & acceptance through athletic and academic achievement. I found notoriety through image & identity on the basketball court. Who I was was based on what others thought of me. My feelings of unworthiness and loneliness were absolved by withdrawing into workouts at the gym. This has morphed into a workaholism and a performance-based lifestyle of tireless accomplishment in ministerial endeavors. I can be embarrassingly competitive and envious of the accomplishment of others. Meanwhile, my feelings are sidelined, speed bumps on the road to my own resume-building. As C.S. Lewis famously diagnosed, I'm "like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea."
Everyone has their own creatively counterfeit response to violations of love & trust: from fight-or-flight to control-or-chaos to grandiosity-or-depression to addiction-or-codependency. This is not premeditated sin, it is a deeply penetrated suffering that becomes very complicated to untangle. All of this "proceeds from the heart" and it is up to us, with the support of community & the structure of spiritual disciplines, to break the cycle of shame & violence. Apathy, indifference, cynicism and justification only lead to more violations of love & trust.
Professional religionists of the 1st century were clinging to the status quo: a system that divided people into sheep and scapegoats entirely based upon the community's definition of purity, a game of "don't touch" involving skin disorders, menstrual cycles, non-kosher foods & unwashed objects. Jesus subverted the rules by placing the focus back on the prophetic, the kind of life that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and Isaiah had consistently scripted centuries before. Jesus took it a step further though, beyond the favored nation status of Israel and the ethnocentricity of Jewish pride. Traveling through the modern-day region of Gaza, Jesus found a hero of the faith: a Palestinian woman, begging for her daughter to be dispossessed of the demonic.
Immediately prior to this incident, in the first few verses of Matthew 15, Jesus laid the smack down on these salaried religious experts, proclaiming that Isaiah's text had become fulfilled in them:
This people honours me with their lips,Jesus offended the scribes and Pharisees by calling them "hypocrites" and then stripping them of their power & privilege, prescribing a washing of hearts, not hands. What happens when we no longer need to go to the church building to get pure? We take it to the streets.
but their hearts are far from me.
Last century, Martin Luther King dreamt that his children would one day "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." King's Dream is the proper lens through which to read the controversial teachings of Jesus (anyone who is executed on a Roman cross is, by default, "controversial"). Christian witness has everything to do with actually living the Way that Jesus lived and taught. This will take a whole lot of personal responsibility, but also a prophetic reconstruction of policies that privilege certain people over others. When we tread this Path, we will summon the strength to take up the cross.
Today, our families, schools, corporations, governments and faith communities continue to shortchange gays and lesbians, slander people of color, scapegoat immigrants & silence women. Shockingly, the purity codes remain, handed down by those in power and privilege, and too readily received by the rest of us. We have missed the message.
Everyone must be invited to the Table. No one is unclean or impure. In God's Economy, it simply doesn't matter who your Momma is, which side of the border you were born on, how many times you've been to church or what gender you are attracted to. It's about getting saved from the destructive patterns we've taken on and then committing to a life of saving all those enmeshed in the claustrophobic grip of family, social, economic and political systems. It's about ending the suffering that continues to suffocate our neighbors & enemies. Now is not the time to retreat into narcissism. Too many folks are catching hell.