The heart of the matter

Proper 17 (August 30, 2009)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps. 15; James 1:17-27; Mk. 7:1—8, 14-15, 21-23

We are now in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (called “Ramazan” in Iran), during which many Muslims (and some Christians) fast from dawn till dusk. There is a different rhythm of life. The pace slows. Many businesses close or reduce their working hours. During parts of the day, the traffic is light — at times the roads even seem deserted. Even those who are not fasting are expected to refrain from eating or drinking in public.

We admire those who observe this discipline – especially not drinking water during this hot season!

Ahmad Attalla sells qatayef -- a traditional sweet -- to customers in Amman (photo by Taylor Luck for Jordan Times)

But Ramadan is not all deprivation. The evening is magical. Families gather to break the fast with an iftar meal and traditional sweets. We are surrounded by comforting sounds of family celebrations – happy conversations, children laughing and silverware scraping plates. In many ways, it seems like Christmas for a whole month! We are reminded that family and community is a gift from God.

Also in the region this week, children returned to school in Gaza. Many school buildings were heavily damaged during the January 2009 war.

Badly damaged school in Beit Lahia -- northern Gaza Strip

We saw the devastation during our visit to Gaza in February 2009. Sadly, these buildings have not yet been repaired because Israel will not allow construction materials to enter the Gaza Strip.

The American International School of Gaza -- built with U.S. taxpayer dollars, destroyed by U.S.-supplied F-16 jet

The Common Lectionary readings address the connection between obedience and intimacy with God. They also speak about the difference between human traditions and true religion – which springs from the heart.

In the Old Testament reading, Moses tells the Israelites to diligently observe God’s just statutes and ordinances as a witness to all peoples (Deut. 4:6). “What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?” Moses asks.

The psalmist asks, “Who may live in God’s tent and abide on God’s holy hill?” (Ps. 15:1). It is those who walk blamelessly, speak the truth and do not slander (vv. 2-3a). It is those who do no evil or harm to their neighbors (v. 3b). It is those who despise evil deeds and honor those who fear God (v.4). It is those who loan money without interest and do not take bribes (v.5).

In the Epistle reading, James say that pure religion – that which is pleasing to God – is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). He calls his readers to “be doers of (God’s) word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v.22).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus confronts the religious leaders who strictly observe human traditions and focus on outward appearances, while their hearts are far from God (Mk. 7:6). “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition,” Jesus challenges (v.8).

It is easy to see only the outward manifestations of Ramadan – the fasting, changes in work hours and traffic patterns. But Ramadan is really about the heart. Like the Christian season of Lent, it is a time to seek God’s forgiveness and guidance. It is a time to humbly surrender to God, to learn patience and to better practice one’s faith.

May our faith, too, be a matter of the heart, not simply observing lifeless human traditions.

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