18 February 2018
Bill Bryson in his book made in America tells the story that in 1951 the owner of the Hi Hat lounge in Nashville , purchased a life sized photograph of a naked young woman, lying on a fluffy rug and proudly hung it in his bar. Even by the chaste standards of the day it was not a revealing picture, only her back was exposed to view and probably nothing would have come of it except that one day an electrician arrived to do some work and recognised the woman in the photo as his wife, he was surprised because he hadn't known she was doing nude modelling for a local photographer.
He took Hi Hat to court, it blew up into a national issue. The Judge ruled that as art the photo was acceptable but as barroom decoration it was unquestionably obscene. He suggested, seriously that one of the city's art galleries would like it. In other words if displayed in a darkened bar where it would be seen by no one by grown up drinkers, the picture was corrupting. But if placed in a public place where anyone of any age could view it, it could be regarded as a local treasure. And no one anywhere appears to have thought this odd.
And probably we can even follow that reasoning.
The judgement was about the thoughts of the people who might view it and the picture became unclean when it was with unclean people. and clean when it was in the art gallery.
The observant Jews of Matthew's day would have been on board with this. A good Jew was, like that picture to remain pure by staying clear of situations which might make him unclean, and he could passively use this as justification for avoiding some of life's seedier people. The Matthew community behind this gospel, had no reason not to continue to observe Jewish rites, worshipping in the Temple and following the practises of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Jesus was a radical rabbi, the messiah who brought them back to the roots of the tradition. [Hosea] not as keeping the letter of the law, but as a grace-filled initiative that allows one to carry out what would otherwise be next to impossible. Do unto others, Jesus says. Love those who are all but unlovable And Jesus more than once reminded them "Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice"
So we have two less than desirable characters, a Tax collector and a woman whose illness made her ritually unclean. Both were things to be avoided by those who piously justified their actions by their observance of the Law.
And Jesus demonstrates the extent of God's mercy and grace. We see how a mechanical observance of the Law excluded those most in need of God's healing grace.
The tax collector, Matthew. is sitting in the tax booth, the reputation of tax collectors was that they made their money by swindling people by over-charging and keeping the profit. Also tax collectors were involved with Roman currency, coins featuring the image of Caesar, a clear violation of the second, if not the first, commandment.
Financially, he was better off than most, but socially, he was an outcast and unclean ritually. Yet, Jesus came and said to HIM, "Follow me." In a sudden spark of "hope against hope" in his heart, Matthew took a chance - he dropped everything and followed Jesus. The one who had been so devoted to the self-seeking values of empire now became a selfless servant of the Kingdom
Well, the Pharisees didn't comment much about Jesus calling Matthew to follow him. Perhaps Jesus would make him change his ways! But they drew the line when Jesus sat down with all those tax collectors, and laughed with them, and ate with them. Why isn't Jesus careful about the company he keeps? Jesus' response to the critics was from the pages of their own tradition: "Go and learn what this means, 'I require mercy, not sacrifice'"
Next, we are introduced to a leader of the synagogue. He suddenly was thrust into his own family tragedy,. Jesus was the one who could offer "hope against hope" for him. His daughter was precious to him, far more precious than his standing as a highly respected official. He was in need of a physician. So he kneeled before this rabbi hoping against hope that he could help. Jesus responded to his plea and began to follow him.
But there was an interruption! A woman who hoped she would not be noticed..Her presence in the crowd was a violation of the Levitical code. She made all those in the crowd who touched her ritually unclean.
Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening, whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening (Lev. 15:20-23).
Pretty unrelenting stuff, especially if you've been persecuted by it for over a decade. Her sacrifice of family, of community, of worship, of identity, of everything left her nothing to hope for in the way of mercy. If only the law could be read, could be experienced, from her vantage point, from the victim's perspective.
There is a detail of this story which Matthew wants to make it clear. The garment worn by Jesus the object of this woman's hopeful attention is distinctively Jewish, and that it sets Jesus apart as an observant rabbi. In first-century Palestine, it was a custom for most Jewish men to wear fringe on each corner of their garment, in accordance with the prescription found in Numbers 15:
And the Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments, and to put a blue chord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own hearts and your own eyes (Numbers 15:37-39; cf. Deut. 22:12).
Matthew is explicit here in his use of the phrase "the fringe of his garment" (tou kraspedou tou himatiou), this gave a message to those listening to the story in context, that what this woman was reaching for, and what she ultimately touched, was in fact a symbolic reminder of the very law that had in its application abused and excluded her for the last twelve years. Despite being reviled by members of her own religious community, however, she still held out hope that God would do "a new thing," and it was to this bold teacher that her expectations were now directed. She chose not to look outside her tradition for the comfort she so needed, but to remain committed to the covenant that God had made with her ancestors so many generations ago, and it was Jesus who offered her the hope of new possibilities. She was reaching for a new understanding of the law, and Jesus' response to this extraordinary act of courage "Take heart, sister, your faith has made you well" And she was made well, by the very fact of Jesus' affirmation of her as part of the body of believers. While her faith and hope had kept her alive for twelve years, it was God's love communicated in the words and deeds of the Messiah and perpetuated by the body of believers who had been "called out" for such a task that made her whole.
Pharisees weren't all wrong. Bad company can corrupt good character... it's a basic tenet in Hebrew scripture--be careful whom you associate with (Psalm 1.1). It's also a lesson the old in every generation impress on the young. But what the Pharisees didn't see was the deeper truth, that in order to reach those who have lost the right way, we cannot isolate them. And they had made it hard to recognise holiness in the daily lives of God's own people.
Jesus himself showed that holiness stays holy and is not able to be made unclean, but rather touches the unclean and makes them holy. and whole. Jesus is the same whether he is in an art gallery, a bar or a stable but he can transform each place.
Today we can all share at the table for Jesus eats with us and offers his own holiness to us. This is his table, it is not ours and all we are asked to do is hear the invitation to come, and to accept those who share the meal of God's mercy and love.
With thanks to Daniel Deffenbaugh of whose exegesis I have used verbatim with regard to the background of taxcollectors and the woman and the garment
And to Sharon Jacobsen, Sermonshop sermon Note #6212 whose insights on the passage have also been appropriated
Christopher R. Brundage for the ending summary PRCL list
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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