Was Jesus Religous? (A Sermon on Matthew chapter 9)

Jesus left that place, and as he walked along, he saw a tax collector, named Matthew, sitting in his office. He said to him, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and other outcasts came and joined Jesus and his disciples at the table. Some Pharisees saw this and asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such people?” Jesus heard them and answered, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. Go and find out what is meant by the scripture that says: ‘It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.’ I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.”

Then the followers of John the Baptist came to Jesus, asking, “Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t fast at all?” Jesus answered, “Do you expect the guests at a wedding party to be sad as long as the bridegroom is with them? Of course not! But the day will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

“No one patches up an old coat with a piece of new cloth, for the new patch will shrink and make an even bigger hole in the coat. Nor does anyone pour new wine into used wineskins, for the skins will burst, the wine will pour out, and the skins will be ruined. Instead, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins, and both will keep in good condition.”

While Jesus was saying this, a Jewish official came to him, knelt down before him, and said, “My daughter has just died; but come and place your hands on her, and she will live.” So Jesus got up and followed him, and his disciples went along with him.

A woman who had suffered from severe bleeding for twelve years came up behind Jesus and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If only I touch his cloak, I will get well.” Jesus turned around and saw her, and said, “Courage, my daughter! Your faith has made you well.” At that very moment the woman became well.

Then Jesus went into the official’s house. When he saw the musicians for the funeral and the people all stirred up, he said, “Get out, everybody! The little girl is not dead—she is only sleeping!” Then they all started making fun of him. But as soon as the people had been put out, Jesus went into the girl’s room and took hold of her hand, and she got up. The news about this spread all over that part of the country.

Matthew 9:9-26

I’ve come to the conclusion that Jesus, as we see Him depicted in the Gospels, was almost completely irreligious, which is something that I find strangely comforting.

As you know, I’m keen on inter-faith dialogue. Indeed, I like nothing better than hanging out with my mate, the local Sheikh, and I very much enjoyed lunch recently with the local Rabbi too, but I must admit that I do feel a little self-conscious with these excellent men as I just don’t consider myself to be nearly as religious as they are!

It’s not that I don’t like dressing up or appreciate people calling me ‘Father‘, and it’s not that I disrespect anybody’s religious tradition either, but I know in myself that when it comes to moral and spiritual self-discipline, I don’t have a lot of it! But then again, I am trying to follow Jesus, the most irreligious religious leader who ever lived!

The disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus – a group that Jesus would have highly respected – and they asked Him, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast regularly, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, ‘Sorry, but the guests don’t fast while main man is with them and the party is still going!’ (or something along those lines). ‘Boys, we’re having a good time. Jump in!’

It’s such an irreligious answer! Jesus makes no reference to the value of fasting as a religious tradition, nor does He try to show how the spirituality of His disciples is maintained outside of the traditional disciplines. Instead He adds, ‘Well, … you don’t put new wine into old wine skins’ and ‘you don’t sew a new patch onto old cloth’. And however you understand those metaphors, the overall thrust is clear: that Jesus is doing something radically new – something that we may not even want to label as ‘religious’. Certainly it is not something that is going to be understood within the old religious categories.

I had the privilege this week of taking my daughter Imogen to the Imax Theatre, where we saw a documentary on ‘Mummies’ (the Egyptian sort).

It was fascinating to learn about the process of mummification, even if it was rather grotesque to see modern medics try to duplicate the ancient process by mummifying a recently-dead person, whom, when he donated his body to medical science, probably had no idea what was going to happen to him!

Along with learning a lot about mummies, I learnt a lot about ancient Egyptian religion, and I was fascinated to see that it seems to have been basically on about what almost all religions seem to be basically on about – namely, about living an upright and moral life so as to attain life in the here-after.

According to the film, the ancient Egyptians believed that after death we all face a final judgement where our hearts are placed on a set of heavenly scales and weighed against the ‘feather of justice’. If the heart is heavy with sin, the poor sinner is consumed by ‘the devourer’, but if the heart is as light or lighter than the feather of justice, the individual proceeds on to paradise!

Sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound just like the archetypal – all good children go to Heaven – type of religion we are all familiar with? Immanuel Kant called it ‘the categorical imperative’ – that is, the most fundamental of all moral (and also religious) insights: that good should be rewarded and evil punished.

This is something that we all intuit to be true – that good should be rewarded and evil punished – and this truth seems to be at the basis of almost every religious system, ancient and modern, with the exception, I’d suggest, of anything that we might want to attribute to Jesus.

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

It is generally considered to be the mark of an upright religious man that He is seen in the company of other upright religious people. If an upright religious man does lower himself to patronise those who are religiously impure and morally suspect, he does so in order to help those people lift their moral standard. He certainly wouldn’t start a party with them. And even if he did informally fraternise with them for some reason, he certainly wouldn’t let the morally suspect object of his generosity invite all his morally degenerate mates to come and join them for a good time! It is religiously unthinkable!

I remember hearing a prominent church leader at a church growth conference, many years ago (when I last attended such a conference) telling us proudly how in his church there were lots of reformed addicts and ex-homosexuals. I thought that was lovely but remember thinking even then, ‘what about those who are still struggling – who aren‘t yet ‘ex’ or ‘reformed’? Are they allowed to join too?’

Jesus didn’t discriminate, did He? He didn’t stand at the door of the party with Matthew, saying to him, ‘hang on. That woman looks like she might still be involved in the sex industry! You’d better ask her to leave!’ That’s what a good religious person would have done. That’s what the Pharisees – the ones who were asking Jesus’ disciples what on earth their master thought He was up to – would have done. But you can see Jesus saying to them much the same as He said to John the Baptist’s disciples, ‘Boys, we’re having a good time here. Why don’t you join us?’

Actually, He goes a step further doesn’t He, saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. … For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Now of course, we could take from this the idea that what we have on view here is simply Jesus’ special technique for reforming sinners. Perhaps we imagine Jesus winking at the Pharisees while saying this, such that he was letting them in on His secret. This was just Jesus’ very clever, around about, way of bringing moral reformation to the religiously impure and ignorant!

Jesus was not as irreligious as they thought. His focus was indeed on the morally sick, but He had worked out that by showing them acceptance and taking them seriously He could lead each of them through a process of moral reformation, such that even the most degenerate sex worker would eventually leave her job at the brothel and find gainful employment at the local bank.

Before we get carried away on that train of thought, it’s worth noting that even in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 9, there are three other encounters that take place between Jesus and various people He is serving, and there’s nothing particularly sinful about the other persons, which would suggest that the reforming of sinners was not really the essence of His ministry.

There’s the encounter with the disciples of the Baptist that we’ve mentioned already. There’s the healing of the woman who had the haemorrhage and there’s the raising of the dead little girl. Now, I’m not suggesting that these other characters were each necessarily morally pure, but rather that their moral character is not relevant to their stories. Having said that, both the haemorrhaging woman and the dead girl were religiously inappropriate persons for Jesus to have contact with, for they were both religiously unclean.

I remember Father Elias was telling me about a friend of his who came to Christ after having been a strict Hasidim Jew! Apparently this guy said to Elias that one of his big struggles as a Hasidim had been airline travel, for often he would be given a seat alongside a woman, and how was he to know whether that woman was in her menstrual cycle! If she was menstruating then she was religiously unclean, and what if he accidentally brushed her while trying to get past her in the plane and so defiled himself!

This would be an issue for any strict religious Jew, and the poor woman who appears in Matthew 9 would have been a woman who was perpetually unclean. Yet of course this issue of cleanness or uncleanness is completely irrelevant to Jesus! Yes, it would have been a major issue to the religious people of the time, and yes it would have been a major issue for the disciples of Jesus, let alone to the Pharisees, but the very fact that I have to fill you in on the problem is because there is no mention of it in the text. By the time the Gospel is written up, Matthew doesn’t even rate this worthy of a mention!

The dead girl was unclean because she was dead of course, even if, as Jesus claimed, she wasn’t really dead. Either way, once again, we know full well that the religious boundaries that would separate the good and the upright from the corpse of a dead girl wouldn’t matter a tinker’s cuss to Jesus! He just wasn’t interested in that sort of religion!

It’s interesting, if you’re familiar with the Islamic understanding of Jesus. According to Mohammed, Jesus was a moral teacher, and he had his own special set of laws, similar to Moses, similar to Mohammed, and it’s sort of understandable, because that’s what religious people do – they lay down laws. According to the Islamic understanding, the laws of Jesus have been lost, and all we have in their place is these crazy stories, like the ones we read of here in Matthew 9, where Jesus is simply not functioning as a law-giver.

But if He’s not a law-giver, and He’s not on about moral improvement, what was Jesus on about? I think the answer to that is in these stories!

There is a common thread running through these stories, in case you didn’t pick it up, and it’s not the law or morality, and it’s not anything obviously religious so far as I can see. The common thread that runs through these stories, so far as I can see, is that in each encounter Jesus is reaching out to marginalised people!

Some of these people are on the margins because they are sinful, some because they are unclean. The dead little girl is on the margins not only because she is dead but also because she is a little girl – not a significant figure in the society of her day.

But Jesus just didn’t seem to recognise any of the traditional religious boundaries that distinguished between the insiders and the outsiders – between the clean and the unclean, between the upright and the sinful, between the significant and the insignificant, between us and them!

What was Jesus on about, if it wasn’t about laying down a law? He was on about reaching out to marginalised people on the outskirts of the community. He was on about building community for those who had no community.

The Apostle James, author of the New Testament Letter of James, is generally believed to have been the earthly brother of Jesus – that is, another one of the sons of Mary and Joseph, and it was he who later wrote:

“What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world.” (James 1:27)

It’s a funny definition of religion, isn’t it? I wonder where he got that from? I think he got it from his brother, don’t you?

If religion is to be understood in terms of the laying down laws, upholding morality, and the maintaining the categorical imperative – such that good is rewarded and evil punished, then Jesus was definitely not a religious figure at all, for He just doesn’t seem to be interested in that sort of religion at all!

What He was interested in, and, I believe, still is interested in, is reaching out to people on the margins, and giving new life and hope and joy to the weak and the sinful, and in building a more inclusive sort of community where there is room for everybody.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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