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Religion and what to do with it

He called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Matthew 15: 10-20

There’s something pretty big in this world that we all have to deal with. What I’m talking about is religion – strongly held religion. The most aggressive religion that we hear about seems to be militant Islam. But there are many other religiously determined people around us all.

How should we deal with religion? Should we try to avoid it if at all possible? One certainly avoids going to an Islamist stronghold – including a place like Tunisia where the religiously certain may go.

Should we write off all religion by pointing at the damage it has done over the centuries?

‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.’ (Blaise Pascal, French physicist, 1623-1662)

You may be surprised to read (in bold above) what Jesus taught his followers about religion back in AD 30. The Pharisees were a large politico-religious party in Jerusalem. They sent scrutinisers to Galilee to examine Jesus – and opine definitively.

Jesus was a Jew like them – but was he kosher? They found that he wasn’t - because his disciples didn’t wash their hands ceremonially. The religious view was that the disciples had become adulterated inside through hand-to-hand contact with non-Jews followed by touching and eating food.

They had, in religious terms, become “common” – the Greek word translated as “defile” above is the verb koinoo = “to make common”, “to make unclean”. Common as in ordinary. Such were no longer special, no longer true Jews, no longer special people of God. That’s a mark of religion isn’t it? Being better than others – seeing others as lower than you? Others are (unlike you) defiled.

Jesus would have nothing to do with that. He called the people and said, “Listen well, truly make this your own. It’s not what goes into the mouth that makes a person common – unclean – it’s what goes out of the mouth. That’s what makes a person common.”

The disciples said, “Do you know that the Pharisees were deeply offended by your mouth parable?” Jesus’ response to that was slightly cryptic, “Every plant my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.” Then he said, “Let them alone. When the blind lead the blind both fall into a pit.”

‘Most of modern evangelical religion is rotten to the core because its aim is happiness, not holiness.’ (Al Martin, American pastor)

Have you pieced this together? Three things. First, Jesus was absolutely against this religion which made the religionists see others as common, this religion which exalted the religious. Second, Jesus said that this religion – the religion of the Jews, of his own people, would come to nothing. Third, he said, “Leave these religious people alone.” Do you agree with Jesus?

Peter asked Jesus for an explanation of his parable about what goes into and what comes out of the mouth. He said, “Surely you understand that everything that goes into the mouth goes into the stomach and then into the toilet?"

“But”, Jesus said, “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart. These are the unclean, the impure things. It’s from the heart that arise evil plans, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, abusive speech. These are the things that make a person unclean - not eating with unwashed hands.”

If religion, in Jesus’ teaching, is totally useless and to be left alone, how can I become clean within? Did Jesus say anything about that? Yes, he did. His whole life and teaching was to do with that very matter of uncleanness within each of us.

Richard Syvret

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