Signpost for Sunday August 20, 2017: Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a,29-32; Matthew 15:10-28.
The reading from Matthew is in the context of a discussion between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. The discussion itself is not included in the reading, but is, I think, a necessary preamble to what Jesus said. The discussion began with a question Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat. The tradition was a requirement imposed, not by hygiene, but by religion as a symbol of cleansing from any ritual impurity that may have been encountered. There is one statement, (in verse 6) “…for the sake of your tradition you make void the word of God”. The traditions in question surrounded the law as given in the books of Moses and made it more complex, in, this case, associated with ritual purity. Of course, the process of conformity to a complex set of rules reduced the freedom of a single person, but, on the other hand, individuals were able to associate themselves with an identifiable group, and could be excluded from it. This context explains why Jesus began to talk to the crowd about the source of defilement, on how it is a product of the person, rather than the environment. He seems, in the next part of the passage, to be sticking to the traditional view that the word of God is sent to the Jews, not to the so-called Gentile dogs. However, the woman whose daughter was afflicted, aided by desperation and a quick wit, replied that Even the dogs eat what falls from the master’s table. Jesus lifted the affliction.
I have on my bookshelf a book published in 1953 (!). Its title is The Lonely Crowd, and it was written by David Riesman, et al. Although this is rather an old book it may still have something to offer. The authors group societies into three kinds. I have tried to express the ideas in my own words, for a more modern society:
Tradition directed (As it was in the beginning…)
Inner directed (I was brought up to make up my own mind, so…)
Other directed (She has hundreds of followers on Facebook…)
It is difficult to think how such societies could communicate in an effective fashion. Perhaps the image of grafting olives, which crops up in Romans, might help. Paul describes the Gentiles as being grafted into the old olive tree. It was apparently common practice, when an old olive tree ceased to bear well, to take a cutting from a wild tree and graft it into the old tree, thereby invigorating it. A contemporary of the apostle Paul, Columella by name, wrote a book entitled De re rustica in which this process was described. (I have not read the book, merely found a reference to it.)
Is this how we have to get a more vigorous life, by grafting in new ways of thinking?