Sermon in a nutshell: “what is the right ‘food’?” (Lev. 11:1-8)
Why do we need to interpret the Bible?
Last Sunday, I said that unless there is evidence otherwise, we should accept the Bible as is. However, we still need to interpret the Bible because the same words can mean many different things. For example, in the Bible, as we saw last week, “holy” means “separated.” The Holy place is a place separated for the Lord. A Holy person is someone who is designated for the works of the Lord. “Clean” means “safe” or “close to life” and “unclean” means “unsafe” or “causing the likelihood of death.” If something or someone has the likelihood to cause death, it or the person would be pronounced “unclean.” The cleanest thing would be Life, God Himself, and the most unclean thing would be death. Words have different meanings “there” in the ancient times than “here” in the present.
How do we interpret the Bible?
We, Methodists, interpret the Bible using four things: Bible, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. The Holy Spirit also helps us when we use those four “pillars” in interpreting the Bible. Then the faith community arrives at a conclusion for the community. That is an acceptable interpretation for the community temporarily until we have a new consensus. For example, how would you interpret this passage for today?
From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat. Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud—such you may eat. But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The rock badger, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you.
There are many possible interpretations about “clean” and “unclean” foods. Using reason and experience, some say that there were “hygiene” reasons for the division. Some meat is easily spoiled without preserving facilities. Some think that the division is a kind of systematics, classification of animals. However, no one single explanation is satisfactory. Using the Bible and tradition, some say that these regulations are necessary for the Jewish people to keep their identity among all the peoples. When they keep the rule, they can keep their national identity. It is a matter of national identity. The most popular theory these days is that these rules tried to avoid “totem worship” in which ancient Israel was involved. All these unclean animals were symbols of some kind of totem or idol worship. Scholars are interested in finding the criteria of the division between clean and unclean animals.
Do we care for the standard of or reason for such division?
Hygiene or systematics theories have something to do with the criteria of the division. Identity or Totem theories have an interest in the reasons for such division. The criteria are not always satisfactory. That is why many people abandoned those theories. Now we ask why God divided the animals.
Why did God divide the animals?
Jesus said that God gave those regulations to remind the Israelites of the fact that they are “holy” people. By observing those rules, they kept reminding themselves that they were “separate” people. Food regulations are one way to show our identity. Vegetarians or vegans declare who they are by their diet. However, Jesus said that the better way to show others who we are is by our dialect rather than diet. “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10-11).
When we want to show who we are, we have to use kind words!
Even when we keep all the diet regulations, we are not holy people if we use foul language and harsh words attacking others. Even though we eat all the “clean” animals, we are “unclean” when we hurt others by words. Our words can hurt and kill others! (Unclean)
Hospitality saves lives and hostility kills others.
Do you remember this passage from Acts 10:9-16? I preached the whole book of Acts and I hope that you still remember this passage because this is an important transition from the Jewish religion to the Christian “open door” world religion.
“About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.”
After that vision, Peter went to Cornelius and baptized the whole family. In this way, the Jewish community opened the door to the pagan world. Now everybody can be declared to be God’s child.
We accept the Bible as is with new interpretation.
Now, we accept the Bible as is: Some foods are clean and some are not. What does that mean though? That means we have to show who we are by our foods. Because we now know the reason for those rules, we can apply them in creative ways:
- We do not drink or smoke because that can kill us (unclean foods). We do not eat too much fat or sugar (same reason).
- We do not eat very expensive steak in order to save money to help others to have food. In this way, we want to show who we are.
- We are careful not only with what goes into our mouth but also with what comes out of our mouth. This is the better way to show who we are. (The Lord’s interpretation)
We also need application after interpretation!
Brothers and sisters!
- How far do you want to go with your interpretation of the scripture? Do you want to stick to the original text and eat kosher foods only? Do you want to eat only organic foods? Do you want to be careful when you eat foods to show who you are?
- Are there any training programs for you to discipline yourself in your speech?