Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3, 5-18, Revelation 18:21-24, Matthew 15:29-39
There’s an old joke about a new bride who wants to make her husband happy by learning to prepare a roast – his favorite meal – just the way his mother did. She spends time with her mother-in-law and memorizes every step of the recipe. One night she surprises her husband with a beautifully prepared roast. He enjoys it immensely but asks why she cut the ends of the roast. “That’s what your mother does,” she replies. “That,” he says, “is because she can’t find the bigger pan.”
We’ve gotten mileage out of this joke before, but this time let’s consider it in the context of today’s passage from Nehemiah.
After the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem after decades in Babylonian exile, they rededicated themselves to their Lord and their Law. The priests wanted to help the people understand the law, so while all the people were gathered “they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
They didn’t just read verbatim, they provided context. Part of God’s previous displeasure with the people, which had culminated in the exile they had just concluded, was their tendency to follow the letter of the law without valuing or considering the principles of mercy and justice behind it. Nobody wanted to that to happen again.
Yet a little less than five hundred years later when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem many people had forgotten the lesson and repeated the mistakes of the past. It seems we are much better at following and enforcing rules, even misunderstood or twisted versions of them, than looking at what’s behind them.
Christians seem to be caught in the tension between following a savior who fulfilled and freed us from the law and defining Christianity through a whole new set of rules grown from tradition and interpretation. We should not abandon our principles and values simply because they fall out of fashion, but we also benefit from regular examination of what principles determine why we do what we do – in everything from the arrangement of the sanctuary, to decisions about which sins to condemn most loudly, to daily personal practices – and from asking whether what we do and proclaim actually conforms to the Spirit rather than the letter. Biblical literacy is about more than knowing what the Bible says; we should always strive to deepen our understanding of why it says what it does. A faith that doesn’t stand up to examination and challenges isn’t a faith; it’s a tissue of superstitions.
Before you cut the ends off the roast, think about who that means you won’t be feeding.
Comfort: Our faith has rich history and tradition.
Challenge: Some of them have outlived their usefulness.
Prayer: I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety. (Psalm 4:9)
Discussion: Have you ever realized something you did regularly was pointless or counterproductive?
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