Washing Our Hands of Mercy

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Ecclesiastes 5:8-20, Galatians 3:23-4:11, Matthew 15:1-20


Christianity has existed for almost two thousand years. Over the centuries it has evolved in some ways into something Jesus might barely recognize. Or maybe it evolved into something he would find all too familiar: an institution whose highest priority is too often its own preservation;  an institution that claims a scriptural basis but predictably twists that scripture to justify human preferences and biases. If that criticism sounds harsh, consider today’s reading from Matthew.

The Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus and his disciples for not performing the traditional hand-washing before meals. Jesus countered by condemning them for using man-made conventions to help people shelter their money through the temple when they didn’t want to “waste” it taking care of their aging parents. The letter of the law permitted this practice, but undermined the spirit of the commandment to “honor thy father and mother.” When the disciples later expressed concern he’d offended the Pharisees, he said:

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions […] These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

Twenty centuries have accumulated a lot of traditions which obscure the message of Christ. Many of them were intended to guide us, but often we have let them come to define us. Rules and practices specific to a time or culture are revered like commandments not because they honor God, but because they honor our self-righteousness.

“We take communion the proper way. We baptize the proper way. We say the proper Sinner’s Prayer. We don’t do X, Y and Z…” Jesus does not ask us only to avoid sin, he asks us to love proactively. What good is not taking the Lord’s name in vain if we don’t speak that same glorious name in love to others? How well do we serve God by condemning abortion but neglecting the hungry children of single mothers?

Law and ethics are separate fields of study partly because you can observe the first without having any concern for the second. Our duty as Christians is to love God and our neighbors. Often our disagreements about how to execute that duty are based more in traditions and biases than in love. When we are quick to discipline or enforce in God’s name, but slower to demonstrate mercy, we disrespect God’s character. As Psalm 103:8 tells us, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”

Let’s demonstrate our love for God – and by extension each other – with both our lips and our hearts.

Comfort: God’s love is bigger than our traditions.

Challenge: Sometimes to love, we must unlearn.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me the humility necessary to follow your will instead of human laws.

Discussion: Have you had to discard any traditions or customs to better follow your faith?

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Foundation

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Ephesians 2:1-10, Matthew 7:22-27


In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, brothers Ivan and Aloysha engage in long and compelling arguments about the nature of God, faith, and the problem of evil. At one point Ivan asks his brother if, to create a utopia where humanity was eternally happy and at peace, he could justify torturing a blameless infant to death.

Of course Aloysha says no. In the context of the novel his answer has many meanings, but let us consider it in light of Christ’s parable in Matthew about the man who built his house on a foundation of stone, versus the man who built his house on a foundation of sand. Naturally the house built on sand crumbled, while the one on the stone foundation endured. The strong foundation results from following Christ’s teachings, the weak foundation from ignoring them.

Foundations matter. The ends do not always justify the means. When we build lives, families, churches, and communities our intentions mean nothing if our methods are corrupt. Houses built on sand and stone may appear equally grand for a short while, but eventually the underpinnings will be revealed. If we have sacrificed the least among us to build monuments, no matter how grand, they magnify not the Lord but our weakness.

Also in Matthew Christ said:

[M]any will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

History is full of innocents sacrificed in the name of religion. Many monuments but not a single utopia has sprung from their “unavenged tears” (to quote Dostoevsky). But the one innocent who sacrificed himself willingly ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven. That is our model for a foundation of stone: a willingness to sacrifice ourselves to serve the kingdom. According to psalmists and prophets, God measures us not by how many we have persecuted on His behalf but by the holy sacrifice we have made of our own lives.

Comfort: Christ was the sacrifice that assures us the Kingdom.

Challenge: If what you desire requires someone else to make a sacrifice you do not have to make, you are very likely desiring the wrong thing.

Prayer: God of strength, teach me to build on the firm foundation of Christ, that my efforts may be lasting testaments to your glory. Amen.

Discussion: What clubs, associations, teams, or other groups do you belong to? Have you ever let them persuade you to accept a questionable means to justify a desirable end?

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The Bare Minimum Wages of Sin

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Ruth 2:14-23, 2 Corinthians 3:1-18, Matthew 5:27-37


Mosaic law instructed farmers not to harvest the outermost edges of their fields, nor to retrieve what was scattered during the harvest. The remnants were left for the poor and the immigrant. When Boaz instructed his field hands to let Ruth, a Moabite immigrant, glean among the sheaves they had reaped and to pull stalks for her from the bundles, he went beyond what was required. While his reasons were not entirely selfless, we can infer he was not the kind of person who held onto things just because he could.

When Jesus spoke about temptations like adultery, he said “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus understood the difference between being tempted and surrendering to temptation. His larger message was that we shouldn’t be a people who skirt the technical boundaries of what is legal, regardless of whether it is right (a lusty look but not a touch), but a people who cultivate hearts that see others as more than an extension of our own needs and desires.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul described the law of Moses as written on stone, and the law of Christ as written on the heart. He called the first the law of death, and the second the law of life. A law carved in stone for everyone to read allows us to settle for the minimum amount of effort because then we’ve met our requirements. It encourages us to figure out exactly what we can get away with before earning punishment. Under a law of stone, we can trade our conscience and sense of ethics for a checklist.

The world tells us to make claim on all that we legally can, to think of justice as the greatest retribution we can legally extract, and to see others as competitors. This is the law of stone and death. The law of heart and life doesn’t leave the poor and alien scrounging at the edge of our fields because we are obligated to, but welcomes them to the table out of love.

Comfort: The law of love brings life.

Challenge: Loving your neighbor as Christ commands requires you to use your head and heart. Ask whether you are doing what is required, or what is loving.

Prayer: God of Life, teach me to read and obey what you have written on my heart. Amen.

Discussion: Many unethical actions are technically legal. Are there any that particularly bother you?

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