top of page
  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Exodus 20:12

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Matthew 15:1-9


15 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’

5 But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. 6 So, for the sake of your tradition, you nullify the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

8 ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ ”

In the Book of Matthew, we find a number of passage where the Pharisees challenge Jesus with a particular teaching from the Torah and Jesus responds by first calling out the Pharisees for their own behavior and then by offering them a more expansive teaching of the same passage. We should not look at these encounters as adversarial. While the text does not explicitly tell us the difference between a Pharisee and a Nazarite, the sense is that these were two different sects of Jews with differing interpretations of the Torah.

Having more than one interpretation of the Torah would not have been unusual. It is actually one of the hallmarks of Jewish thought, the ability to argue one’s position with others who are capable of arguing their own points. Each person would build on the wisdom and knowledge of those who had come before, much in the same way that Christian scholars align themselves with specific theologians or church fathers from antiquity; Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, or Luther come to mind, but there are so many more to choose from. Because each theologian brings a particular view to the table, there are plenty of options to choose from. Being able to argue well is key. We can look at all sides of an issue without splintering.

So, in this context, I can imagine that Jesus and the Pharisees engaged in healthy debate all the time. In this passage, which I’ve chosen to accompany the 5th Commandment that instructs us to honor our father and mother, we find Jesus being confronted with the Pharisees who are concerned about Jesus’ disciples who aren’t washing their hands prior to eating. The rule associated with washing comes from Exodus 30:17-21 where God instructs Aaron and the entire priestly line to place a basin of water between the tent of meeting and altar to be used to wash their hands and feet prior to serving in the Temple.

This law gets extended to everyone in the Gemara, written while in captivity in Babylon. The Gemara, coupled with the Mishnah, comprise the whole of the Talmud. Jews would have been steeped in this tradition.

What is provocative about this passage is how Jesus compares this teaching, the need to wash one’s hands prior to eating bread, with the keeping of the 5th Commandment, which calls us to honor our fathers and mothers. These two laws seem disparate from one another, and yet, Jesus puts them side by side.

In some ways, we are fortunate that we are given additional commentary by Jesus on what he is arguing. He begins by providing us with a passage attributed to Isaiah, which is slightly different than what we now read in Isaiah. Compare the two:

Book of Matthew

‘This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ ”

Book of Isaiah

The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote,

Jesus then follows with a discourse on what actually defiles the body. First, he begins by explaining that dirty hands do not defile the body. It isn’t about what we eat, or even how we eat, that makes our bodies unclean. What goes into the body comes out of the body eventually, and neither of those two things has much of an effect on the world around us. Once again, Jesus maneuvers his teaching to be in alignment with what is necessary for the community to thrive. Hand washing, while laudable, is not what influences others.

The words that we speak to and over one another are the more important lesson. It is what comes out of us that defiles the community. Hate speech, lies, deceit, gossip, to name but a few, are the things that twist and turn our community’s upside down. There comes a point when it is difficult to discern what is true and what is false. The words we speak over others and ourselves impact us at our core. They shape the way we see the world, how we know ourselves, how we love ourselves, and how we love others.

Jesus argues with the Pharisees because he wants them to understand that honor begins first with honoring oneself. When we honor ourselves, hold ourselves in high regard or esteem, truly love ourselves, (not narcissism or conceit, but a godly love) then we are able to love others with the same kind of compassion and care. We see this kind of honoring most present in the commandment to honor our mothers and fathers.

Honoring comes through both words and actions. It is the desire to give the other a measure of respect simply because of the title that they hold. I equate this with standing when the President of the US enters a room. We may not like the President. Maybe we didn’t vote for the President. But because of the title, earned or not, we offer the respect that goes along with that distinction.

This isn’t about loving our parents, although we do hope that love is possible, but it is about father and mother as figureheads receiving just props for being a father or a mother.

For some of us, this may be a difficult commandment. If you were raised by parents who were abusive, or who are in no other way honorable, it is hard to find the will to honor that which isn’t living up to the title. Still, Jesus asks the hearers of this story to go beyond what is comfortable. This isn’t about what makes us happy, but rather about doing what is right – if there is a right or a wrong way to do this.

My prayer is that we can learn to be more mindful with our speech and our actions; to remember that the words we speak over each other matter, and that how we behave toward one another effects the whole community.

6 views0 comments
  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

“I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.” Harriet Tubman

This quote haunts me. It reminds me of a time that I cannot know or understand but can only imagine.

When the most recent movie about Harriet Tubman came out, I went with friends to see it at the theater. Probably the last movie I saw at the theater. Tubman’s journey across unknown territory didn’t seem to dampen her resolve to run toward freedom. She kept going until she “crossed the line.” When I close my eyes, I can picture what that feels like, to cross the line, because I’ve hiked across state lines high up in the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina/Tennessee. In my case, though, I wasn’t hunting down freedom, I was trying to reconcile my connection with this land; a land I’d never occupied in my lifetime, but which had been occupied by my ancestors.

There is a scene at the end of the movie that still causes me to weep when I think about it. After years of leading people from the South to the North along the Underground railroad, Harriet Tubman takes a group of men in boats to the South Carolina shore. They sit quietly on the water, and she starts singing, “Wade in the water, wade in the water children, wade in the water, God gone trouble the water.” Chills go up my spine as I sit with anticipation, and without warning, hordes of people come rushing out from the tree line running as fast as they can toward the water and the boats that are going to carry them to freedom.

Most of us will never know what it is like to need to flee one set of circumstances in favor of another because we long to be free. This longing is why so many are willing to risk everything. This was true for slaves hoping against all hope to be free from slavery, and this was true for people living in the ancient world who longed for better circumstances for themselves and their families.

The Hebrew Bible is filled with passages that command the people of Israel to welcome the stranger. God tells them to remember when they were strangers in a strange land, and to use that memory as the impetus for treating others with kindness and compassion.

It is so easy for us to forget that other people around the world live in extremely different circumstances than we do. We rarely think about the impact of famines, but instead complain that the price of tomatoes has gone up once again. Even the states that have been hit the hardest by natural disasters, don’t go without assistance from a multiplicity of agencies. We have resources in the United States that other countries just don’t have.

Our Southern border has become a political hot-potato, but we are talking about human lives here. Instead of seeing the border as a siphon that strips Americans of their property and wealth, we need to see it as an opportunity to embrace those who have fled their own countries in search of safety. These individuals have left everything behind – loved ones, jobs, homes – searching for a place where violence and gangs won’t destroy them. They also search for economic opportunities and provide our country with much needed skilled labor.

“Welcome the Stranger” is not just a cute saying that makes us look good, it reflects on our understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. Mankind has erected borders where the Divine did not. We have divided and subdivided humanity to the point that all we see is division. We rank different ethnicities by the color of their skin and the erroneous belief that some ethnic groups are inherently better than others.

This is never what the Divine intended. We are one human race with many self-expressions. The diversity with which the Divine created the trees, flowers, rocks, and mountains, is the same diversity with which the Divine created all of humanity. When we blindly refuse to recognize the whole of creation as part of the Divine, then we fail to see the complexity of the Divine, which is the same complexity with which we acknowledge is present in all of creation.

Tubman, in recognizing that she was a stranger in a strange land, wanted to make sure that no one else had to experience that journey without being properly welcomed into freedom. Offering a hospitable welcome to people we do not know, whether in our congregations, our schools, or our wider community, offers something of ourselves which creates space for one more. Love doesn’t understand borders and boundaries. The human spirit is wilder and freer than we give it credit.

It is my hope and prayer that as you think about the life you have, the comfort you experience on a daily basis, that you will remember that not everyone around the world lives with this kind of abundance. When people are looking for a safe place, a place to plant their feet, put down roots, and grow, we need to be the ones welcoming them. We are all strangers in a strange land, even if we’ve forgotten where it is we came from. Let us be bold in welcoming the stranger to tarry with us, in so doing, we erase another boundary that seeks to keep us divided.

8 views0 comments
  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Exodus 20:8-11

8 “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son, or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

Matthew 12:1-8


12 At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 How he entered the house of God, and they ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

The concept of “keeping Sabbath” is not new to us. We have talked about the Sabbath in the past and looked specifically at God’s mandate to the people to not labor on this day of rest. There is, however, more here than we first discussed, and Jesus, in the Book of Matthew, offers us even more insight into the ideas and customs regarding the Sabbath day and its requirements for rest.

The question arises, even among Jewish sects, “What constitutes work?”

Early in the history of Orthodox Judaism, they developed categories of activities that were considered “work”. They are as follows:

o Agricultural Responsibilities

o Food Preparation

o Clothing Manufacture

o Animal Maintenance

o Writing

o Building

o Lighting or Extinguishing Fires

In the Book, The Jewish Experience, Steven Jacobs writes, “For Jews who take seriously the religious understanding of the Sabbath as refraining from all manner of work, the challenge remains to contemporize these historical categories into modern parlance, especially for those whose residence is urban rather than pastoral/agricultural. What constitutes work?”

We find that many individuals of Jewish faith have had to rethink these categories and look at these prohibitions differently, especially since it is near impossible to adhere to the “no work” tenants of the faith without going to extraordinary lengths. Jacobs goes on to say, “Thematically interwoven themes make this premier holy day a true symbol of the Judaic religious tradition: First, it is that reminder of imitatio Dei, imitation of God, resting from work as God rested from work. Second, it is appreciation of the descendants for the liberation from Egyptian slavery by God. And third, it is understood by many to be a foretaste of what life will be like when, at long last, the long-sought-for messiah of the Jews makes his appearance.”

In light of this understanding of what Sabbath means to the Jewish people, strictly or more loosely observed, Jesus brings a new teaching that in some ways lays the ground work for a more loosely observed Sabbath. What might appear at first as Jesus acting like a petulant child, “well, so and so did it, so why can’t I,” that isn’t exactly the point he is trying to make. Jesus offers the religious leaders of his day a clear precedent within their own faith for gathering and eating that which one gathers, even though the law states that this is a prohibited activity. By pointing back to the time when David ate bread from the Temple, which was not his to eat, Jesus is redefining what is acceptable and unacceptable. Oddly enough, David eating of the bread didn’t have anything to do with the Sabbath but had to do with eating that which is deemed holy.

Jesus, in using this illustration to make his point, reminds the religious leaders of his day that everything made by God is holy, it always has been holy. There was never meant to be a prohibition against eating grain on the Sabbath. It isn’t the act of picking grain, or eating grain, that is the problem. From the beginning, God is setting aside the Sabbath, a day that is holy, for all things holy, rest included. What makes “work” unholy is when ANY activity takes you out of the restful, worshipful space that one needs to occupy in order to rejuvenate oneself.

If Jesus and his disciples were asked to harvest the whole field – that clearly constitutes work that is neither worshipful nor restful. Eating a little bit of grain because you are hungry is about taking care of your physical needs as they arise.

Jesus then does something with this passage that I think is profound. After defending those who came before him who also exercised questionable behavior, Jesus drops the mic with this statement, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Ouch!

What we realize several millennia later is that the sacrificial system established by God for the people of Israel became like many things that we do repetitively, we become immune to its effects. Throughout the Hebrew Bible we see an evolution in the nature of God, not because God changed, but because the people were growing and changing, and becoming what they had never been. So, when Jesus tells the religious leaders of his day, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless,” he was calling them out for their lack of growth, their lack of holiness.

When God instructs the people of Israel to be Holy as God is Holy, he doesn’t expect them to get it the first day they leave Israel. They wander in the desert for 40 years in an effort to change enough to be considered Holy enough to enter into the covenantal promise God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is, perhaps, one of the hardest journeys we will ever take in life, from that place of not feeling worthy of God’s attention to knowing we are part of the divine artistry of all of creation.

Holiness is everywhere if we are willing to see it for what it is. The rest that God is calling us to enter into on the Sabbath is necessary for us to be able to see the Holiness of God. Without resting in God, it is hard for us to see God.

5 views0 comments
bottom of page