Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man. – Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition
Listen, and take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up. – The Message
In Jesus’ time there were very strict rules concerning what could and could not be eaten: certain foods could not be eaten at all, others could only be eaten if prepared for cooking a certain way, some foods couldn’t be prepared/eaten if they were paired with other food, some food could only be prepared in certain containers, etc. [Editor’s Note: Kosher is the word we’re looking for here :)] [Editor’s Additional Note: This still applies today for observant Jews]
If dietary laws weren’t followed, consuming offenders had both religious and sometimes corporal punishments to contend with (currently there are no religious or corporal sanctions I’m aware of, except for maybe feeling a bit guilty). Jesus was trying to get the point across that pin point accuracy in following external requirements in no way indicated a heart full of mercy, service and compassion; judging others according to their slavish and razor sharp adherence to dietary laws was not the best way to judge how accurately or faithfully a person was trying to follow the will of G-d. (There were also economic factors at play – if you were wealthy it was much, much easier to follow all of the dietary laws, both because you could read (or knew others who could read) the Torah & Talmud and because having wealth meant you could afford to buy the utensils needed to cook and eat Kosher)
So Jesus was saying that looking at a person’s (this is one of those times where I’m pretty sure I’m using actions towards other people was the best metric to use to judge their religious life.
(We now return to our regularly scheduled programming. Cue the Nugget of Uncleanliness! You might want to binge read that before moving on)
So our middle school protagonist was not doing well. Adults and kids had let them know, with both words and actions, that the NoU (Nuggets of Uncleanliness) were anathema and not to be tolerated. Tears were shed. Battle lines were drawn. Alliances were made and broken. Armchair theologians (heh – that’s me!) were quoting esoteric texts. Angels and saints waited with baited breath to see what would happen.
It should be noted that all of the kids involved were under fourteen years of age (why is this important? shame on you! Read here first, then come back) except for one (and that one wasn’t a huge eater of NoU’s). Even if this was a Friday during Lent on the campus of a parochial school, they were well within their rights to eat NoU to their hearts content. But they were confused. Perplexed that one platter of NoU (Weapons of Mass Damnation!) (WoMD) could cause such panic.
What to do?
I ate a NoU (WoMD) dipped in Chick-fil-A sauce 🙂 (I’m not the biggest consumer of Chick-fil-A food – I much prefer anything made of cow – but that Chick-fil-A sauce has got to be what angels dine on in heaven)
And we talked about it. About how hospitality and compassion were kind of important. About how treasuring another person’s feelings was important. About how knowing their faith, and the rules that went along with their faith, were important, too (because then they could have proudly proclaimed that they were OK eating NoU. [Is the plural of that NoUs? NoUses?]) About how Jesus would never belittle a child over something so trivial (didn’t he get in trouble for something similar?) (Yes, yes – I know the context of the story is a bit different – just go with it for now). And about how our love for people must be greater then our love for rules.
And then we all feasted together on Nouses. And went about our meeting. And went about our day and ensuing weekend.
And I think heaven rejoiced that the heart of a little one which was crushed like dry bones came back to life that day.
I’m Catholic, and I do my best to follow the rules. In my role as teacher and minister I do my best to teach others the rules, and explain why it’s important to follow them. But if I’m trying to focus on the more important stuff, especially with the kids I work with, then I need to temper my own legalistic tendencies and work with them to see that there will be times when people (created in the image and likeness of God sound familiar? temples of the Holy Spirit? earthen vessels filled to overflowing with God’s presence? one of a kind collectible entities fashioned by the hand of their loving Father?) must come first.
Blessings & Peace,
PS: I spoke with the parent of the child in question that same day. Said parent thanked me for championing their child. It’s a good memory for me 🙂