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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“Not the heart, but the stomach”

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window): 
Psalms 43; 149, Genesis 47:27-48:7, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Mark 7:1-23


Most of us identify the “self” with the brain or head. Our physical voice resonates inside our skull, so we assign that same voice to our mental life. Hearing our own recorded voice can be shocking; because it differs so greatly from what we expect, the experience can border on identity crisis. However, this sense of identity belonging to the head is not universal. Cultures have placed the self in the heart, the kidneys, and elsewhere. Helen Keller wrote of her pre-lingual existence: “If I had made a man, I should certainly have put the brain and soul in his finger-tips.”

What organs best describe our faith experience?

Do we rely on our gut? Instinct is a fine survival tool, but doesn’t always align with faith. The instinct to fit into our tribe is so strong that we can elevate tribal traditions to immutable laws and ostracize those who don’t follow along. For example, the Jewish people practiced ceremonial hand-washing before meals. It was not a religious law, but a human one. When the Pharisees and scribes accused the disciples of disrespecting tradition by not washing their hands, Jesus pointed out how the religious leaders truly disrespected God by rationalizing away his commands.

The Pharisees relied on brainpower to the detriment of their souls. They allowed some Jews to dodge financial support of their parents – part of God’s command to honor them – by pledging money or property to the temple, thereby making it unavailable for other use. This clever ploy – benefiting both the pledger and the temple – was within the letter of the law, but far from its spirit. The brain may love a faith full of loopholes, but Jesus doesn’t.

Jesus taught faith comes from the heart. Regarding Jewish dietary laws, he said everything that enters the body is destined for the sewer, so it can not defile us, but if our heart generates wickedness, we are defiled from within. Our physical hearts have tremendous influence on our brain function. Our spiritual hearts should similarly influence our minds and guts away from defilement toward true faith and love.

Comfort: Christ’s law is love.

Challenge: It can be easy to vilify the Pharisees and distance ourselves from them. Like us, they were products of their culture. Try reading today’s passage from Mark with some sympathy for the Pharisees and ask yourself what cultural traditions are more important to you than they need to be.

Prayer: Create in me a clean heart, O God. May my mind and will always be in your service. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been surprised to learn something you thought had religious roots was only a local tradition?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

A Responsible Sabbath

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 43; 149, Genesis 41:1-13, 1 Corinthians 4:1-7, Mark 2:23-3:6


When Jesus picked and ate a handful of grain on the Sabbath, the pharisees accused him of violating the law. He replied: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” and reminded them a starving King David once ate the bread in the temple. This is only one of many time Jesus taught them God’s foremost priority is the people, not the law. Picking a handful of grain for the moment’s enjoyment is qualitatively different than working a day in the field, but the Pharisees made no such distinction between the letter and spirit of the law.

On the other hand, as Jesus tried to put the law into perspective, he at no time dismissed it wholesale. He never claimed the Sabbath was made for humankind… to ignore. We are eager to hear the message we are not slaves to the law. Are we just as eager to receive Christ’s words about our responsibilities to justice and mercy? American culture is all about establishing rights, but how would we react to any proposed Bill of Responsibilities? Freedom is only one side of the coin. Jesus clearly has expectations we are to use our freedom to make the right choices: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. Instead of a simple checklist, we have an obligation to love our neighbor. Freedom can be a wild creature; fortunately God gave each of us a brain we can use to rein in our freedom toward his service.

Like the Sabbath or the law, Jesus’ teachings were tools given to humankind. We depend on them to do our job as Christians. As with any good tools, we must learn to use them properly. To master them, not only do we have to read the manual, we have to apply them in the real world, and gain experience to know how they handle in action. A plumber isn’t a slave to his wrenches, but he isn’t much of a plumber without them.

Freedom from the law is a gift, but it is a gift we must use responsibly.

Comfort: You don’t need to win God’s love through good deeds.

Challenge: Review the past week. If you find you have squandered your freedom, make a commitment to using it more responsibly next week.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for freeing me from sin and fear. Use my time and talents toward your great purpose, that may love for my neighbor may be even the palest reflection of your great love for humankind. Amen.

Discussion: How do you use your freedom? What sense of responsibility do you have toward your neighbor?

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Systems Check

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Proverbs 30:1-4, 24-33, Philippians 3:1-11, John 18:28-38


When the Jewish leaders arrested Jesus and took him to the Roman governor Pilate, “they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.” Let that sink in for a moment… They found ritual uncleanliness unacceptable, but framing a prophet because he might actually be speaking on behalf of God was fine. Jesus was right to compare them to tombs whitewashed on the outside and rotten on the inside.

Under Roman occupation, Jewish leaders had no authority to execute anyone but they didn’t let this technicality discourage them. By saying Jesus claimed to be a king, they made him a rival of Caesar and therefore backed Pilate into a political corner. Jesus was advocating throwing off the Roman yoke for the Kingdom of God, but that didn’t suit their purpose so they twisted the truth to fabricate evidence against him. The tactic could be ripped from today’s headlines: self-righteous group misrepresents the facts to serve some narrowly defined greater good. Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” and we’ve been fudging the answer ever since.

Who are the villains in this piece? Should we point to scheming Pharisees, oppressive Romans, treacherous Judas, or fair-weather crowds? The truth is, everyone was guilty. The systems in place allowed corrupt leaders to act with impunity, communities to shift blame upward, and individuals to convince themselves they had no choice when they didn’t want to consider real but difficult options. In other words, business as usual.

In what Christ-betraying systems do we knowingly or unknowingly participate? How do we help perpetuate poverty, discrimination, violence, human trafficking, and other evils? If we knew the child sold into slavery to provide us cheap sneakers was Christ, would our cries for justice be louder and our choices different? We need to examine these questions when we make purchases, accept employment, and wield – or fail to wield – privilege and influence. Choosing God’s justice often requires choosing inconvenience, discomfort, and expense.  In God’s system, where the last are first, what does it mean to look out for number one? It means working toward justice for countless others.

Comfort: Every step you take toward justice is a step toward Christ.

Challenge: Lent starts tomorrow. This year give up apathy.

Prayer: Forgive me, Lord, for not wanting to know what I do.

Discussion: Have you ever made different choices after learning “how the sausage was made?”

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!