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On a yes day
things are what they seem
but on a no day
the world might swing wrong.
That’s not quite how Ralph Burns
wrote the verses
but it’s close.
So today we have an old story in front of us.
Not only is it an old story,
it is the primary narrative of the gospels –
at least the Synoptic Gospels.
To steal an idea from that Burns poem,
it is a yes story to a no story.
It is the story of a war
between our penchant for purity
and God’s hope of authentic community.
If it sounds familiar, it should.
This narrative comes to us
over and over and over again,
and it feels like it bites us every time, too.
This story is always worth unpacking
and never really gets old, at least not to me.
So here goes.
The religious authorities in Matthew’s story,
know who and what their authority comes from
and they quiz Jesus about his authority.
The religious authorities
operated on coercive power –
just like presidents, generals, and CEOs do
in our world.
Coercive power was and is,
the ability to force people to act a certain way,
or to manipulate, move, and restrict
life sustaining resources
when they don’t.
The religious leaders in Jesus’ day
were granted authority by birthright –
being born into one of the reigning priestly families.
they were given the resources
and responsibility to operate the Temple.
It was a monopoly
because the Temple was considered
to be the one and only place
from which the power of God was exercised.
As Matthew’s story goes,
the religious authorities test Jesus with a question.
But it is not really a test
if we know how to read the subtext of the story.
By asking their question about Jesus’ authority
their actual intention was to belittle him.
They knew, for example,
how much authority they had
and in comparison
anything Jesus tries to say
will seem anemic.
“So little man, what’s your authority?”
But Jesus is smarter
than to simply answer tit for tat.
When you are smaller and weaker than the bullies,
you have to get fast and agile,
Here is what was going on
behind the question they asked Jesus.
John the Baptist
was far more popular than Jesus,
and to an ordinary Judean or Galilean
John the Baptist had been a messenger
speaking with the voice of God –
in other words, a prophet.
John spoke with the authority of God
while the religious leaders
had only the authority of coercion.
Herod had John beheaded
because the authority of God was too powerful
and threatened his authority.
So, if the Temple priests gave an answer
that diminished John’s authority
they would have less credibility with the people.
But if they confirmed John as a prophet,
then they would receive the wrath of Herod,
whose coercive power was considerably greater
than their own.
But Jesus doesn’t answer their question,
he tells them a story instead.
The point of Jesus’ story
kind of pokes them in the eye.
As we’ve talked about before,
the religion of Jesus’ day was a purity religion –
just like a lot of the religion practiced in our world.
Even John the Baptist was all about purity.
But John also challenged the Temple monopoly
by providing alternative access to forgiveness
The religion of Jesus’ day
orbited around the question
of how to remain pure
when the slightest violation of purity rules
made one unclean.
To be clean was the moral and religious task at hand,
and was enormously important.
Indeed, it was the central organizing principle
for practicing the religion.
If you were not clean,
and if you did not do anything to purify yourself,
then you could not remain in association
with those who were righteous.
And remember, the covenant with God
was communal not individualistic.
Individualism had not appeared
on any scene in human history yet,
and the idea of personal salvation
would not show up
for another thousand years or more.
So an individual needed to remain in communion
with the community of faith
and in order to do that,
he or she needed to remain ritually pure.
But eat the wrong food,
or eat the right food at the wrong time,
or eat the right food with the wrong person,
or any combination of the above,
and you became unclean.
But purity and impurity
were scrupulously delineated
by more than consumption.
Touch, ever so slightly,
a woman while she was on her menstrual cycle,
and you became unclean.
Touch a dead body, and you became unclean.
Enter the house of a gentile, or any unclean person,
and you became unclean.
Have a blemish on your skin – even a simple zit –
and you were unclean.
Touch someone who was considered diseased,
and you were unclean.
The size or degree of your violation
did not really matter –
impurity was impurity
regardless of degree.
Every violation required cleansing,
and more often than not,
the purchase of animals to sacrifice at the temple –
which of course enriched the Temple and made
everyone dependent upon it – you know,
like credit cards and interest.
The nature of rehabilitation and recovery
varied by the degree of violation,
but not the requirement to get treated
before being allowed to return to communion
with the community.
There was nobody more unclean in Jesus’ day
than tax collectors and prostitutes.
Matthew uses them as a metaphor
for the worst of the worst.
Both tax collectors and prostitutes
worked with Gentiles –
they were collaborators
with the Roman oppressors
and to do so, they had to violate
the rules of separation from Gentiles.
Tax collector did not refer to the big money guys
who owned and operated the structures of taxation.
It referred to the middle men,
the agents of the big money guys.
They were the people hired to collect the taxes
and they were commissioned
with whatever they could gouge
from the people they collected taxes from.
In other words,
if someone owed a 2% tax on their flock of sheep,
the standard rate by the way,
then the tax collector might charge them 4%.
They were racketeers and extortionists,
the bag men for the taxing authority.
So tax collectors were considered extremely unclean
and morally diseased.
Not to mention they were hated.
Prostitutes, besides engaging in sexual activity
that was expressly forbidden,
did so with Gentiles –
who were likely their primary customers.
and civil servants
were the principle people with money
and so they were the target market for prostitutes.
Tax collectors and prostitutes
were thus considered, “as Gentiles.”
They were permanently stained
by their despicable service
to the Romans
and other unclean populations.
So, the idea of Jesus eating with tax collectors
not to mention a wide variety of lesser
but still obvious violators of purity laws,
was an interesting one-upmanship
on John the Baptist.
You see, John
had subverted the Temple monopoly
by using baptism
to cleanse people of their impurities.
Instead of depending upon the Temple,
with its expensive means of reconciliation –
requiring as it did sacrificial animals
or payment to the clergy –
John offered baptism
which cost nothing.
It was a brilliant sabotage
of Temple authority.
But Jesus went a step further.
By hosting an open table
to which all manner of people were invited,
tax collectors and prostitutes included,
he seemed to be saying that people were forgiven
even before they asked for it.
Jesus offered acceptance
and community to the unclean
they acknowledged their guilt.
We might look at it today
as a brilliant therapeutic or pastoral maneuver
to start by accepting people as they are.
But to the people and authorities of his day
Jesus was cutting the legs out
from under the scaffolding
which held up the whole societal structure.
If purity and caste
were taken out of the rigid hierarchy
it would collapse from its own weight.
And we should be clear about something
rabidly subversive in these stories.
When Jesus hosted these events
for the unclean or attended as a guest,
it was not a sober visit to the hospital
or dour, begrudging dinner with relatives
nobody really likes.
They were festivities.
They were feasts.
They were fun.
Unclean, repugnant people
yucking it up with Jesus –
that is what it would have looked like
to those watching from the outside.
Jesus was a party boy
in contrast to John the Baptist
who was an aesthetic and
into self-abuse and deprivation.
While Jesus may have had a strong mystical side
that compelled him to seek out lonely places
he clearly had an extroverted side
that either reveled in
the social dimension of community
or was pretty doggone good at
working against type.
And he modeled for us
both the communal nature of spirituality
and the radically open nature
of spiritual community.
On the surface
that looks like awful good news,
but then we recognize that
there is no part of ourselves unwelcome at the table.
Uh oh, suddenly we are challenged
to accept and bring along
those parts of ourselves
we would rather neglect, hide,
repress, and punish.
And then there is the double-whammy
of pulling the hair of our prejudices and bigotries
until they hurt.
Whoever it is we don’t want at our table,
whatever category of people
and whatever person we have hated
and don’t want to see again,
has an empty chair waiting for him, her, or them.
Ugh. No wonder they hated Jesus.
I don’t know about you
but there are parts of myself
I hate and am ashamed of,
and I sure don’t want them taking a seat
at the table where you might meet them.
And there are people and groups
I would go out of my way to avoid
and who would just ruin any lovely liturgy
I had hoped would be peaceful and perfect.
But this story,
among many others,
lets us know such discomfort and pain
is sewn into the fabric of community with Jesus –
it is the nature of the kingdom of God.
It is not only because such openness
reflects the nature of God,
but also because
it is in such scabby open sores
within the community
that the hope of healing resides.
Healing does not take place
when we separate and severe connection.
Walking away from painful conflicts
or nagging differences
insures healing will not take place.
slamming the door shut with silence,
and frosty denials
and keep alive our wounds.
apparently going back as far as human history
has been recorded,
is to segregate along
the imaginary boundaries
of culture, language, geography,
skin color, talents, limitations, and interests.
We’re still doing it and with a vengeance.
This whole blue state/red state thing,
our intentionally executed racial segregation,
and rejection based on national origin
are anathema to the Gospel.
No, more than that:
when we uphold them
and reinforce them
we are a bitter embarrassment to Jesus,
and an affront to God.
they are a bitter embarrassment to Jesus,
and an affront to God.
That is what the stories tell us.
Come to the table
and makes sure the table we set
is radically open and welcoming.
Whatever parts of ourselves
and whatever parts of society
we feel the most resistance to
are precisely who we need to invite
and welcome first.
These old stories, smudged by time
and discredited by our twenty-first century sophistication,
still hold up a mirror –
one in which we can see ourselves.
They also push us to see God,
not as the source and means of meeting our needs
and insuring our self-interest,
but rather, as a lover of souls
with an open embrace
that invites us to do likewise.
Stories tell us who we are,
where we came from, and
how we got to be this way.
That is the power of story
and that is a darn good reason
to keep telling ours.
Blessing and peace be with you,
and thank you for being part of this community today.