“Beware the dogs”

Pentecost 16

Philippians 3

Marian Free

In the name of God, who calls us to freedom from rigid moral codes in order that we might submit ourselves completely to God. Amen.

 Recently I watched a movie called “Sabah”. It relates the story of an Arab family who had moved to Canada for a better life.  As is the case with many migrant families there is a tension between those who want to keep the traditions of their culture and homeland and a younger generation who, exposed to the values of a new land want to be free of the limitations imposed by their cultural heritage.

When the movie begins, the family is celebrating the birthday of the eldest daughter Sabah. One of the gifts is a photo of Sabah and her father at the beach. The photo awakens in her a desire to swim – something she has not done for years because it is considered an unseemly behaviour for a Muslim woman. Despite this, Sabah cannot suppress her longing to swim. Without her family’s knowledge she takes up swimming. In the process she meets and falls in love with a Canadian man. This is totally unacceptable to her family who give Sabah an ultimatum – she must end the relationship or no longer be a part of the family.

Sabah makes the choice to stay in the relationship. Fortunately, first her mother and sisters and then her brother come around to the idea of her being with a Westerner. Together they come to terms with the fact that adapting to the culture of their current home may involve relinquishing some of the rigid practices of the past, but it does not mean that they have to lose their identity nor does it necessarily mean that their moral values have to be compromised.

Stories such as this are common in our multi-cultural world. In Australia there are stories of tensions within families in which an older generation of migrants wants to hold to the traditions and values of their country of origin whereas a younger generation wants to feel that they belong in the country that has become their home. It would be foolish to think that it is easy for families to make the sort of transitions that are required to enable them to fit into a new community. Habits and traditions are not only comfortable and reassuring, but they often carry with them moral overtones. To break with the past, is not only to reject one’s culture but to expose oneself to criticism for moral turpitude.

This is the sort of clash of cultures that caused so many problems for the early Christian community. As we know, Christianity emerged out of Judaism – Jesus was a Jew, the disciples were Jews and Paul was a Jew. The earliest believers simply incorporated their faith in Jesus into their practice of the Jewish faith. Difficulties arose when non-Jews began to believe in Jesus. Members of the Jewish faith were challenged what they perceived as the intrusion of the Gentiles. They struggled to maintain the traditions and rituals that were essential for their self identity and tried to impose them on the new-comers.

We should not underestimate how difficult it was to combine the two communities. Years of exile and foreign rule had meant that the Jewish people had had to fight hard to maintain their identity. They did this, it appears, by putting a great deal of emphasis on those things which set them apart – the food that they were allowed to eat, the cleanliness rituals that they observed, circumcision of all males over 8 days old and so on. These behaviours and observances not only affirmed their identity as a people, they were also considered markers of their purity and holiness. This meant that failure to observe the cultural and religious mores would jeopardize not only their membership of the community but also their relationship with God.

The problem for the early church was that the very things set the Jews apart – those things that identified them as God’s chosen people – were the things that made it impossible for them to be part of a community that had non-Jewish members. Associating with those who were not Jewish, especially eating with them would make them ritually unclean – unfit for God. It was not something to be taken lightly. A way around this problem was to insist that the Gentiles should become as Jews observing the same rules and regulations as themselves – including being circumcised.

This is a solution that Paul strenuously opposes as we can see in the letters to Galatia and Rome. In the letter to Philippi we get a sense of the strength of Paul’s feeling on this matter. He warns the Philippians: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” Paul was convinced that it was knowledge of and faith in Jesus that was important, not the observation of rituals and laws or by external identity markers such as circumcision. These were all things that he once considered important – in fact, in terms of these outward forms of identification – circumcision, membership of the people of Israel, a Pharisee and so on- Paul says that he exceeded his fellow Jews. However, now that he knows Christ Jesus, everything that he once considered important – not only for his identity but for also for his salvation, he now considers as nothing more than rubbish.

According to Paul the criterion by which one is saved is faith, and if it is faith, then Jew and Gentile are saved by the same means – by faith in Jesus Christ. This does not mean that there is anything inherently wrong in the practice of the Jews, but it does mean that the Gentiles do not have to observe the same rituals. It also means that the Jews will not find themselves excluded from salvation if they rely on faith for their salvation and relax some of the rules to enable them to accept the Gentile members of the new community and to worship with and eat with them. When it comes to faith, it is not the externals that matter, Paul says, but the state of the heart.

This long ago dispute serves as a warning to our generation. It reminds us not to take ourselves and our practice too seriously, not to place too much importance on the external observance of our faith and not to hold so rigidly to the past that we are unable to see what God is doing in the present. Times change and so too must we. If we are not to be left behind, we must distinguish between that which is at the heart of our faith and those things that we have added to enhance our expression of that faith. The former must be brought with us into the future whereas the latter can be safely left behind. Paul reminds us, as he does the Philippians – that in the final analysis, it is the strength of our belief and not our outward display that matters.


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