September 1, 2013

How to Offend a Host

Service Type:

A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table.  The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner.  (Luke 11:37b-38)

A couple of months ago, I completed a course on Racial Justice;  a course that’s required for all United Church clergy.  The course was designed to prevent clergy from saying or doing anything which might offend someone whose race or culture was different from their own.

While I can understand the value of being sensitive to racial or cultural issues, so as not to upset someone whose background and upbringing is different from my own;  I think the United Church, and for that matter, society as a whole, has become too sensitive of such issues.   Political correctness has become the watchword of the 21st century.

However, for those of you who wish to always be politically correct, I have some suggestions to add to your list of appropriate responses.

  • For parents concerned about the clutter in their children’s bedrooms, - I suggest that instead of telling them to clean up their messy room, you say: “Please clean up your room because it has become "passage-restrictive."
  • If you have a friend who is having trouble with her hair, don’t say to her: “I see you having a bad hair day", say instead: “I see you’re suffering from ‘rebellious follicle syndrome”; and
  • If you are talking about a person who is extremely shy, - don’t call him ‘shy’,   say rather that he is  ‘conversationally selective’; and for the person with the opposite problem, who is too talkative, you can say she is  ‘abundantly verbal’.
  • And of course, you must never accuse someone of gossiping.  Say rather that they’re ‘transmitting near-factual information’.
  • And ladies, in order not to offend your husband when he comes home with that smelly hockey bag, ask him if he would please put away his  ‘odor-retentive athletic equipment’.
  • And one more for parents, if your son or daughter has the misfortune to be sent to the principal’s office for discipline, you can tell your friends that he or she was sent on a mandatory field trip to the administrative office.

Now, while our society may have become overly fearful of offending others by word or deed,  our Gospel Lesson this morning reveals, that our Lord had no such qualms, at least not on the day that he dined in the home of a Pharisee.

I imagine most of us picture Jesus as a very loving and compassionate individual; one who would go out of His way to show care and consideration to others.  But on this occasion, Jesus deliberately broke one of the fundamental rules of Jewish etiquette; by sitting down to eat without washing his hands.  Surely He knew that such an omission would offend his host.  So why did He do it?


To understand Jesus’ behaviour, we need first to consider how the Pharisees treated Him.

Early on in His ministry, individual Pharisees began following Him wherever He went; - mingling with the crowd, - harassing Him with criticism and - always hoping that he’d say or do something they could use against Him later.  For example:

  1. On the day that the tax collector, Zaccheaus, climbed a sycamore tree to get a better view of Jesus passing by.  Jesus called him to come down, so that he could dine in his home.   The Pharisees were horrified.  “He’s eating with sinners!”, they shouted.  (Luke 19:5)
  1. On the day Jesus healed a mentally ill man, by casting out the demon that had been tormenting the poor fellow, the Pharisees accused Him of association with Satan, because only Satan could caste out demons.  (Matt. 9:34)
  1. When Jesus dared to heal a man on the Sabbath, they accused Him of doing work on a holy day of rest.  (Matt. 3:2)
  1. But probably the thing which most riled the Pharisees, was when Jesus healed the sick by simply saying:  “Your sins are forgiven.”  In their eyes, only God could forgive sins, and they, stubbornly refused to recognize Jesus as the Son of God.

It was no secret that the Pharisees harboured  a great deal of animosity and even hatred, in their hearts, towards Jesus.  But what aggravated them the most, was that whenever they confronted Him with an issue, Jesus was able to turn the criticism back on them, making them look foolish in the eyes of the people.   You see, Jesus could see into the minds and hearts of His accusers, and knew that their motives were evil.

So given this long standing tension between them, we might question why any Pharisee would invite Jesus to his home for a meal.  He certainly  won’t do it out of friendship.  So what would the motivation be?

The answer I believe is that, although they considered Jesus a threat and a thorn in their side,  the Pharisees knew that Jesus was unlike anyone they had ever encountered before.  So, while they may have despise Him and considered Him a threat to their leadership, they were also intrigued by this man who could heal the sick, restore sight to the blind and raise the dead.  Jesus was someone they simply couldn’t ignore.



Now, let’s return to that scene in the Pharisees’ home, and see if we can learn from what Jesus did.

The first thing we know is that it wasn’t ignorance of the rules that led Jesus to break tradition and eat without washing.  He knew full well what was expected of Him, but He deliberately ignored this fundamental rule of Jewish etiquette.

To understand why, we need to know something about the hand washing ceremony that was practiced by the Pharisees.  It wasn’t, as you might think, something they did for personal hygiene.  It had nothing to do with cleanliness.  Today, we wash our hands in order to cleanse them of harmful bacteria which might cause illness.  But in Jesus day, there was no such awareness for the need for such washing.  What the Pharisees were doing was purely and simply, a ritual; a very elaborate ritual.

It wasn’t something that was required by the Law which Moses received from God, but instead had grown out of multiple discussions among the rabbis who, (in their nit-picking sort of way) were always questioning how the Law should be interpreted.  The conclusions of their debates were recorded in a document called the Talmud.

By the time Jesus began His ministry, this Talmud stated that anyone who wished to demonstrate his holiness must wash his hands during meals, in a very specific and ritualistic sort way.  The ritual was to be conducted, not just at the beginning of meals, but after every course.

To accommodate this ritual, large stone vessels of water were kept in the homes of devout Jews, specifically for this purpose, because of the fear that ordinary water might be unclean.  So precise was this legal requirement, that even the amount of water used was dictated.  It had to be just enough to fill one and a half egg-shells, and no more.

The ritual began with water being poured over the hands, beginning at finger tips and then running up to the wrist.  Then the palm of each hand had to be cleansed by rubbing the fist of one hand against the other.  And finally, water was poured over each hand for a second time.  This time, beginning at the wrist and running down to the fingertips.  To omit even the slightest detail of this ritual was considered a sin.

So then, why didn’t Jesus participate in this ritual when he sat at the Pharisee’s table?  It wasn’t an oversight.  He ignored this ritual deliberately to make a point.

Jesus knew the Pharisees performed this ritual purely and simply to show their superiority over other men.  So by ignoring this ritual, Jesus was reacting to the legalism of the Scribes and the Pharisees; - a growing body of legalism that was making the lives of ordinary Jews unnecessarily burdensome.

The Pharisees loved to boast that they adhered to ever minute detail of the law.  It was something that filled them with pride, because they knew the common man couldn’t do it.  The Laws of Judaism had become too complex for ordinary Jews to follow in every detail.   So rather than obeying God’s Laws as an act of obedience to God, these men were using the Law to inflate their own importance.

God had given the Law to Moses in order to help the people live godly lives.  As such, the Law was supposed to facilitate a right relationship with the Creator.  But the religious leaders had turned this basic Law into a cumbersome procedural law code, which only those who committed their entire lives to it, could possibly obey.

Jesus was appalled by this pretense at holiness, because He knew the insincerity of those who practiced it.


So what can we learn from this incident?

Jesus’ message, I believe, is clear.  The path to holiness and a right relationship to God, is not paved by obedience to rules and regulations.  Know one can earn the praise and admiration of God merely by obeying a cumbersome set of rules.   That’s not the way to please God.

Rather than helping the people grow in their relationship to God, the Jewish leaders had actually made God more remote and unapproachable, hiding Him behind the veil of the temple;  making him one to be feared.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus did everything He could to reverse this abuse of faith.  His mission was to open the way to communion with God.  That’s why He repeatedly referred to God by the name  ‘Abba’, an intimate term which in English means  ‘Daddy’ or ‘Poppa’, and He taught us to call God, ‘Father’.

Jesus didn’t want His followers to be weighed down by cumbersome rules that made life unnecessarily difficult.  His way was one of simplicity and directness.  He showed us  that God was a loving Father, One with whom we can communicate directly and personally through prayer.

But I think Jesus had a second objective that day in the Pharisees’ home.  He wanted His followers to always be aware of their motives in matters of faith.  And He wants us to be aware of why we do, what we do in our worship and in the practice of our faith.  Why do we come, week by week, to church?   Is it to commune with God, or to show the world how religious we are?

Think for a moment.  Why do you call yourself a Christian?  And what reward do you gain from attending church regularly?   In other words, what’s in it for you? If your motive in declaring yourself a Christian is to make you feel superior to your atheist friends and colleagues, then you need to be honest with yourself, and acknowledge that your motives are less than genuine.  If you attend church Sunday by Sunday, merely because it makes you feel important in the community, or superior to those who remain home mowing their lawn or playing out on the golf course; then you need to be aware of this, and change your ways.

Of course, such overt examples of self interest may not be what motivates your involvement in the church.  Maybe Sunday worship has simply become a habit;  a good habit, but a habit nevertheless.  But the problem with habits is that sooner or later we do them without much thought.  They simply become part of our routine.

It’s like driving a car.  Have you ever experienced a moment where you realize you’ve been driving for some time without thinking about what you are doing?   You’ve been driving on automatic.  Such moments can be a scary, because you wonder what you might have done if there had there been an emergency; a child stepping out from behind a parked car, or a vehicle suddenly veering in your direction.  Would you have had the presence of mind to respond quickly enough?

The way we practice our faith  can sometimes be like that.  We come to church, spend a hour in worship, and return home.  But we have no memory of what we’ve learned or what we did in that hour.  We did everything by rote.   When this happens, we’ve lost the value of worship.  It no longer provides the peace that comes from communion with God.  We’ve closed the door to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and we certainly won’t be motivated to go out into the world as an ambassador for Christ.

Much of our Sunday worship is routine.  We begin with a call to worship followed by a prayer.  We sing hymns and praise songs.  We repeat together a confession of our sins, and listen to the reading of Scripture.  And then we sit back, (and perhaps sometimes let our minds drift off into our own thoughts), as the pastor drones on for 15 or 20 minutes, interpreting the Scripture.  (I know I’ve been guilty to this.)

Sermons are intended to help worshipers apply their faith.  They provide an opportunity for God to speak directly to individuals;  but only if we’re toned in.

I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve been amazed by what people tell me, at the end of the service, what they’ve received from my message.  Often, what the individual has heard in the message isn’t what I thought I was saying; but God has spoken to that person in a way that meets his or her personal need.  That’s how the Holy Spirit works.

It’s easy to take our Sunday worship for granted because it’s so familiar.  We’ve done it countless times before.  But my friends, the moment we let our worship become routine, it ceases to be effective for us; and we lose the opportunity to communion with God.

There is value in rituals, so long as they retain their meaning.  But when we participate in them thoughtlessly, they lose  all value for us.

I sure, if Jesus were to join us today for a meal in our homes, He would wash His hands before eating, just as we do.  But when He declined to do it in the home of that Pharisee, He was reacting to a meaningless ritual that hindered and did not promote a right relationship with God.

Let’s make sure, the practice of our faith does not become simply a routine.