Spinach, Rhubarb and Gentiles, Oh my!

3dc67-spinach“I don’t like spinach, and I’m glad I don’t, because if I liked it I’d eat it, and I just hate it.”

Clarence Darrow

While I don’t have much of an opinion of spinach, I often paraphrase this quote to express my dislike for rhubarb. There is nothing good about rhubarb and no matter how much sugar you mix with it; it still has a bitter overpowering taste. (Strawberries don’t help either!) So I will not eat the forbidden fruit and echo the words of Peter who refused even God when he declared, “’By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” [1]

I don’t feel I am being any more self-indulgent than Clarence Darrow who was one of the greatest legal minds and philosophers in American history. In my opinion only Thomas Jefferson could equal him intellectually. Still Mister Darrow was an atheist which demonstrates that even a cerebral giant can get it wrong.

Clarence Darrow’s remark is in truth a satire of the human propensity toward prejudice. (Except that rhubarbs really do taste horrible!)  We formulate opinions based on a single seed of information, nourish it and allow the seed to grow to an infectious weed that chokes out all reason. It’s ironic that Jesus used the mustard seed as an illustration for the power of faith. The mustard plant was and is a valuable crop but left uncultivated turns into noxious weed which was hated by all the farmers of ancient Judea.

It astounds me how prejudice has become a nomenclature of our culture and our personal behavior. As Clarence Darrow relishes his hatred of spinach, we seem to become comfortable about our bias, even taking pride in them. Prejudice has a blinding affect on all people and erodes at the foundation of Christian trust and discipleship. The most ardent Nazi or Klansman rarely saw themselves as unfair or discriminatory.  Liberal minded people, who defend the rights of others, say and do things which demonstrate narrow-mindedness and are oftentimes unable to recognize their own harmful attitude.

            In acts 10 Peter is called to the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. He was a devout, God-fearing man, as was everyone in his household. He gave generously to the poor and prayed regularly to God.”[2] Though God-fearing, Cornelius was not a Jew. Still God tell Cornelius to “…send some men to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter.” [3]

Meanwhile Peter  has a vision from God “11 and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”[4] Even though it was God commanding him to do so, Peter refused. ‘Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.’ declared the voice from heaven.

There were strong taboos against the eating of certain animals in the Jewish faith Carrions because they ate dead animals, pigs and shellfish because improperly prepared they made people sick and snakes, due to the reference in Genesis.

 “Because you have done this, you are cursed     more than all animals, domestic and wild. You will crawl on your belly,     groveling in the dust as long as you live.”[5]

           

Three times God sent this vision to Peter which left the apostle questioning how the consumption of forbidden meat would further God’s Kingdom. As he was pondering this question, the three sent by Cornelius had arrived and Peter heard a messenger from God declare, “Behold, three men are seeking you. 20 Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.”[6]

 In Peter’s time contact with non-Jews was held to a minimum. Jewish laws forbid the faithful from entering into the household of a gentile or to socially engage with them. The ban against entering a gentile’s home was deeply ingrained in Jewish religious culture and Peter, though a follower of Jesus was a devoted Jew. The fisherman would have had a profound struggle with the idea and told the Centurion. . “28…You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation”[7]. However the meaning of the vision became clear and the implication of what he and Cornelius had been told by God’s envoy could not be ignored.

As commanded by God, Simon Peter recited the ministry of Jesus and… “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.”[8]And Peter seeing that the Holy Spirit had descended on the whole household said,  “47 “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?  48And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. 4[9]”  

When Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was criticized by the other apostles who still clung to the old prejudice that were validated by their faith. In Acts 11 Peter logically and matter-of-factually explained what happened. Then the council, “18 When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” [10]

This story demonstrates how old ideas based on biblical laws needed to be eliminated in order for new ideas to flourish. Like the mustard plants which began as a cultivated crop, the plant began to propagate out of control and choke out any new crops that needed to be grown. At one point discrimination against a people or idea may have served a limited need and then only for a small group of people. The underlying cause of the intolerance was either resolved or vanished, but the bigotry continued.

There’s a story of a farmer who built a temporary bridge over a creek. He would occasionally shore it up but continued to drive his pickup over the bridge everyday for many years. Finally the bridge collapsed and the puzzled farmer stared at this truck at the bottom of the creek and said, “I’ll be darned. That ain’t never happened before!”

Like the farmer we often shore up old structures and never get around to building a new bridge. As Christian we believe the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old one. Unfortunately we anchor ourselves on the old teachings and they become just that, an anchor holding us down to old ideas and prejudices. The ancient stories and laws served God’s purpose but now God need us to move on with new ideas, building on what we’ve learned from the past but seeking to march forward into the future.  Moses led his people for forty years in the wilderness to prepare them for the land that was set aside for them. Once a new generation crossed the River Jordan, they never returned to the wilderness but moved forward. Their journey conditioned them for the conquest of a new land but they needed to shed their old ways as both slaves and wanderers.

The pioneers who settle the American frontier would fill their wagons with all their possession. Soon a trail of furniture, musical instruments and family heirlooms would litter the roadway to the west. They would arrive at their new homes with just the things they needed to begin their new lives.  Similarly Peter came to understand that to be a disciple of Christ he had to shed old ideas and habits. There just wasn’t enough room in his heart to cling to former concepts and understand fresh ones.

Ours is a journey of faith across a capricious wilderness and we cannot be burden with distrust, suspicion and imaginary fears, old family heirlooms. We shore up the old bridges using outdated ideology about people of other faith, other cultures, other lifestyles, and other nations. When we do so, we demonstrate a lack of faith in God and a selfishness to serve ourselves for our own purpose. We declare what is profane and tell God he cannot make us eat it.  By doing so we disobey God and deceive ourselves into believing we are obeying Him. We hate the taste of spinach but eat it anyway.

 God clearly wanted Peter to cast off the old customs and move forward with both an open mind and an open heart. That is his intention for us today, to honor the teaching of the past and learn from them. The Bible is an ancient book, but it is not an archaic one. It is not a “how to” book but it is a guide to the future. The ancient words can remind us of what we did wrong but only the Holy Spirit, given to us by Christ, can lead us to the future.

[1] Acts 11:8

[2] Acts 10:2

[3] Acts 10:5

[4] Acts 10:11-12

[5] Genesis 3:14

[6] Acts 10:19-20

[7] Acts 10:28

[8] Acts 10:44

[9]Acts 10:47-48

[10] Acts 11:18