Worship: Meals and Manners

Isaiah 56:1-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-24; Matthew 15:21-28

Isaiah says, “keep justice and do righteousness,” then goes on to say that the foreigners who have joined Israel and also the eunuchs (who were serving in the court of the king) would have a place in the Temple if they keep the Sabbaths and hold fast to the Covenants. Their sacrifices will be accepted in the Temple because it is meant to be a House of Prayer for all people.

Now, we’re used to the idea of everyone being accepted by God; of everyone being allowed to pray and worship. But they weren’t. Not at all. In face, Isaiah is contradicting the ancient traditions and even the Law of Moses itself. Foreigners were notallowed in the Temple. Eunuchs, whether they were made that way on purpose or by accident, were not allowed in either.

There was a sort of conflict–to put it mildly–between the priests and the prophets of Israel. They agreed that, in order to stand before God to pray and to worship, that people must be pure. Must be clean, as they called it. But the often disagreed sharply about what that meant.

Let’s step back, though, and see what worship meant for them. Worship always meant being one with God. Not one like the later Hindus or Platonists meant it, like a drop of water in an ocean where you completely lose your identity. But one like a man and his wife are one. One like a family is one. One like people sharing a meal are one. They called this oneness chesed. We call it loving-kindness or just love. It’s where two separate entities remain completely, separately themselves while also being completely joined. A healthy marriage is still the best picture of this.

The way they worshipped was by sharing a meal (That’s what the sacrifices were. They butchered, cooked, and ate the meat, along with bread, oil, and salt). And the meal showed their love: YHWH is our God and we are his people. We’ll be loyal to him and he’ll be loyal to us. That loyalty was called faith and it was mutual.

But meals have rules, whether or not we’re overt about them. The rules are different in different places, but most everybody’s got some rules about dining together. Sometimes the rules are hard to articulate because we all just assume them, but we all know when the lines have been crossed.

At my house, if you come over, we’re going to offer you something to drink soon after you show up. Usually sweet iced tea–’cause I grew up in Arkansas–but also coffee, or whatever I’ve got. When we eat dinner, we’ll sit around the table; it would be weird if someone grabbed some food and went into a bedroom or something to eat by themselves. You know, we’ll all expect that no one puts their feet up on the table or uses their fork as a back-scratcher. The rules sound silly if you say them out loud because everyone just knows them. They don’t have to be said.

But different people in different places have different rules. It seems that the idea of meal-time rules is pretty much universal, but what those rules are can change. In some places, it’s normal to serve rodents for supper, but they think cheese is absolutely disgusting (true story). In some places, the norm is for everyone to eat off of the same plate. For some people the custom is to eat everything with one’s fingers. Flatware is considered unsanitary (you never know where that fork has been, but you always know if you’ve washed your hands).

Well, the ancient Hebrews had a fairly elaborate set of table manners when they were going to share a meal with God. They mostly governed what kinds of food were okay to eat, how they’re prepared, that sort of thing. They also had lots of rules about how to make things clean for the meal. The people eating the meal had to be clean. The building had to be clean. The utensils had to be clean. The priests’ job was to make sure everything and everyone was clean and then to cook the food properly.

And, as we all know, one of the main ways they cleaned things then was with blood. Which seems strange to us, but it wasn’t to them. They knew that blood was sacred. It was obvious that if someone or some animal lost all of its blood, that creature quit living and turned back into dust. So, obviously, whatever life is, it’s in the blood. So in this, the most special of meals, they used the most special thing they had to get everything clean and ready. Sometimes they mixed it with ashes, sometimes with water. Some of it they put on the altar, some of it they sprinkled on the people, some of it went on the priest–it’s all pretty foreign to us, but it made total sense to them. You can read a bunch of this stuff in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and in parts of Exodus.

But the main thing to get is that in their minds, they were sharing a meal with YHWH. And that meal made them one with him. You’ll see the English word atonement. We had to make up a new English word to describe the at-one-ment that occurred with these meals. It showed and enacted the particular kind of unity that happens with real love: two entities remain  distinctly themselves, distinctly separate (or, holy), while being intimately and completely united into one.

But like we said before, there was some pretty sharp disagreement between the priests and the prophets about what it was that made a person clean enough to share in this meal.

The priests had their long traditions of ritual cleansing. Some people, like the foreigners and the eunuchs (but there were others) couldn’t even enter the main part of the Temple because they would defile the whole thing just by being there.

The prophets tended to point out that there were people going in to worship who may have been technically “clean” by the priests’ standards, but who still weren’t fit to be there because of the uncleanness inside of them. Sure, they may have been washed in the blood for the festivals and whatnot, but when they got back home, they were doing things like using tricksy measuring scales when selling wheat or not paying their hired laborers every day. They were buying up property right and left and charging too much in rent. They were treating the land like it belonged to them instead of to God. They weren’t leaving any gleanings for the poor. They weren’t paying any of the three tithes–part of which was designated as a relief program for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. When people went owed money, their creditors were repossessing their livelihoods rather than forgiving the debts. Not to mention the corrupt priests who’d been arround since the time of the Judges–check out 1 Samuel chapter 2–taking more than their due from the sacrifices and from the women who worked at the Tabernacle. Put all that together, and you can see why the prophets thought the whole thing was corrupt.

And so you’ve got Isaiah saying, “I don’t care if you are a eunuch or a foreigner.” He doesn’t even seem to care what Deuteronomy says about them. “Keep justice and do righteousness.” “Keep the Sabbaths”–that is, “rest in God.” “Hold fast the Covenant”–that is, “practice this unity, this loving-kindness, this at-one-ment” Keep the Sabbaths. Hold fast the Covenant. And God will bring you to his Holy Mountain: literally, Mt. Zion, but in reality, everywhere that God is joined to mankind. Where the Laws of heaven are obeyed on earth. Everywhere we quieten our minds, turn away from distractions, and recognize God’s presence. “In Him we live and move and have our being.”

This is the same thing that’s happening in the story about Jesus and the Gentile woman. She had a need. The kind of need that someone could expect to be met by God if she were joined to him. She cries out towards Jesus the way Solomon had said the Gentiles should pray towards his Temple. Jesus kind of baits her with a typical priestly kind of response (I think he did it because he wanted us all to pay attention to what’s happening). She fires back that people take better care of their dogs than that. Nevertheless, she persisted. And because of her persistence, her faith, her reliance on God, or, “keeping of the Sabbath,” she was granted her request.

Paul tells us about this in his letter to the Romans. First, he lets us know that the Gentiles being brought into the Covenant is not about God finding a new group of people to be in communion with, but a matter of new group of people to be in communion with, but a matter of new people being joined to the old group. But then he warns us: if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. God’s kindness is towards you; provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.

Now, real quick, Paul’s not talking here about sending people to suffer in hell. That doesn’t even come in to play in this letter. And if we jump to that conclusion when we hear about branches being cut off from the olive tree of Israel, we need to stop and recognize that we’ve added that idea to the text. Paul has been talking through this whole letter about true and proper worship of God. About how we can experience that at-one-ment in our lives.

And he’s saying the same thing as Isaiah and the other prophets. Being circumcised, keeping kosher, and not working on Saturday don’t mean anything on their own. “The Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles” because of those who claim to be united to him while their lives show them to be liars.

And it’s the same for us. Being baptized, receiving communion, believing the Creeds, fish stickers on our cars, the Bible in our hands, the 10 Commandments on our lawns, the words of God on our lips–those can all be good, but none of them are worth anything if we are not cleansed inside. Worse than no good, they become toxic to us and to those around us. We become whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones; robbing widows of their houses and covering it up with long, pious prayers. That’s not true worship and it’s not true Christianity. That’s not the way to experience the love of God that intimately and completely unites us to him while we remain distinctly ourselves. “The Pharisees wash the outside of the cup but inside they’re full of extortion and self-indulgence. Woe to them!”

Those are not the table manners that God cares about. To be washed in the Blood of the Lamb means to have our hearts cleansed. Then we will be true worshippers. Start in Romans ch. 12 and read on to see what true worship is: Don’t think too highly about yourself. Love one another with brotherly affection. Bless those who persecute you. Submit to authority. Welcome those who are weak in the faith and don’t squabble with them. Don’t judge another person for working out their morality differently than you do (yes, that’s in there). Please your neighbor. Do good. Live in harmony. These are the table manners that Jesus requires of us. This is what truly cleanses us; makes us right with God. This is what Jesus died to make us: an intentional community of peace and prayer.

Then we truly share Holy Communion, the meal that makes us one. Then we are united to God. He is our God and we are his people. He owns us and (YES!) we own him.

One like a family is one.

One like a husband and wife are one.

One like people who share a meal are one.

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