By The Rev. Sherry Deets
14 Pentecost Year B Proper 17 – September 2, 2012
A young rabbi went to serve his first synagogue, and he noticed that on the first Sabbath, when he said the prayers, the congregation on the left side of the synagogue stood at the beginning of the prayers, and the congregation on the right side remained seated. The young rabbi thought this was a little odd, but continued to say the prayers. After the first couple of petitions, he noticed a murmuring, which intensified as he continued the prayers. Finally, it got loud enough that he was able to make out some of the words.
The murmuring in the congregation was a disagreement between the two halves of the congregation; the left half was saying that in this synagogue the tradition was that the congregation stood during the prayers, and the right half was saying that in this congregation the tradition was that they sat during the prayers.
As the prayers continued, the voices got louder, until finally the rabbi stopped because he was sure that God was the only one who could hear him anymore.
Hoping that this event was due to having a new rabbi (and attempting to influence him), the young rabbi did not discuss it with anyone, but the next Sabbath, it happened again. The argument once again got so loud that the young rabbi stopped before he had finished his prayers – people were actually yelling at each other. The tone had gotten rancorous, and each side of the congregation started to engage in accusations of heresy and other name-calling.
The young rabbi looked up the elderly rabbi who had served this congregation for years, and told him what was going on. The question he asked at the end of his story was, “So is it the tradition of the congregation to stand during the prayers?”
The older rabbi stroked his beard and replied, “No, that has never been the tradition of that congregation.”
“So the tradition is that they remain sitting during the prayers?”
The older rabbi looked off into the distance, as if remembering the good years serving God as a rabbi and said, “No, that was never the tradition of that congregation either.”
The young rabbi threw his hands in the air in exasperation, and said, “There must be some solution to this! The way things are now, they just end up screaming at each other during the prayers.”
The old rabbi’s face lit up in a smile as he lifted an admonishing finger to the sky and said, “Yes! That was our tradition!”
So, in listening to our gospel passage this morning, it feels like walking in on a family argument: it is painful to hear and tempting to walk away. We may find it easy to dismiss the in-house disagreements between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees as embarrassing or irrelevant, rather than probe beneath the surface to listen for the heart of the gospel’s message.
Notice that Jesus does not condemn their beliefs or denounce their important role in first-century Judaism. The Jewish leaders who confront Jesus about questions of ritual purity are not petty bureaucrats obsessed with matters of trivial pursuit. Rather, they are concerned that Jesus’ disciples are not demonstrating reverence for the tradition of the elders, since the ritual of hand washing was considered and integral part of Jewish faith and identity. When Jesus turns the table on their concern, he does so as a deeply religious Jew who cites the prophetic tradition of Israel in denouncing the selfish interests of the scribes and Pharisees. He asserts that their hearts are far from God, but he does not condemn all of Judaism and its leaders.
God is far more concerned with who we are on the inside than the outward ceremonies we observe. You can pray standing up or you can pray sitting down and still never really pray.
Human beings need a sense of order to feel secure. We need laws to organize our communities; we need doctrines to articulate our beliefs. Order and doctrines are not bad things. However, when we begin to worship what gives us a sense of order or bow down to a doctrine, we cease to be faithful to our Creator.
It’s not the outward form of the tradition that matters; it’s what lies in our hearts that counts.
Jesus told us that it was impossible to put new wine into old wineskins. You see, the old wineskins are already stretched and brittle, and the new wine expands and causes them to break. The wineskins are lost and the wine is lost as well. The old wineskins represent the structures we get into, the outward traditions that have forgotten the heart. The new wine is that which God is doing in us, the new work. If we would have new wine, we must also have new wineskins. The Jews were trying to get Jesus to conform to ceremonial laws. But Jesus knew the new wine had to have room to expand. When we look at the early church, we see that they changed with God’s moving in their midst. They were not bound to the past, but were living in God’s glorious now.
God wants to do a new thing today, and we can be open to it. What worked yesterday may not have power for today. We live in a new day with new challenges, and we need to hear the word of the Lord for today.
Paul said in Philippians 3:13-14, “Forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, 3:14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
Let’s be open for God to do a new thing in our lives. Let’s be open for God to do a new thing in our church.
The story is told of an old man who said, “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I found I could not do that, so I tried to change my community. I found I could not do that, so I tried to change my family. I found I could not do that, so I decided to let God change me.”
The strange thing is, God did change that man, and as a result, the world was changed. It became a better place.
Jesus is changing hearts today, at the price of his cross. He waits for us there. Amen.
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