The texts assigned for this coming Sunday, Mark 7: 1-13 and Ephesians 5: 22-33, can be subject matter for any number of discussions individually. I would like to take a look at how they might be related in a common theme and run with that. Often these texts are hard to see how they might relate but of this Sunday they are not too tough.
To summarize both, Mark deals with the Pharisee bosses challenging Jesus on what is clean and unclean, and Jesus weighs in by pointing up their hypocrisies but concludes by drawing in our relationships with fathers and mothers. Then in Paul’s letter he talks about the roles of husbands and wives. This too has its hypocrisies and is really dangerously thin ice for today that I do not want to skate out onto; but it does also come down to relationships.
We live in a time that is fraught with hypocrisies. The Covid epidemic points up the willingness for one or another group to systematically ignore what the otherwise may have to say, while the other group is confounded by the other’s inability to connect to their reality. The definitions of reality here is highly malleable.
Jesus, in vs. 8 of the Mark text observes, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to set up your own traditions”. Jesus offers a challenge in this sentence to much of what we are living in today.
We are truly polarized in our views of what is going on around us and have few solutions. The larger casualty to this polarization is our loss of relationships. The pandemic has already pulled us apart and this polarization only makes the chasm greater. We struggle to find ways to create friendships, or perpetuate relationships that go back many years. We are less than creative in finding ways to lessen the divide between everything and everyone around us.
All of this reminds me of a simple custom that I was exposed to over fifty years ago in a faraway place. It is also often used to nonverbally offer grounds for new, repaired, or restored relationships between people.
I learned this lesson early in my all expense paid trip to Viet Nam in 1968. I was stationed in the navy on small river boats on the Mekong River where it crossed into Cambodia. We often traveled with Vietnamese army or police liaisons as translators and intermediaries. A policeman, chanh sat, in that language, prompted me in the cultural way of returning identification and travel papers back to the local people whom we were inspecting while trying to slow the smuggling over the water ways out of Cambodia. It is an expression of sincerity that silently apologizes for the intrusion. His name was Nugyen (pronounced Winn) and we became good friends for the time had together there during that year. He might have only been with us every fifth or sixth day, but it was always an adventure to have him with us.
The manner of giving something to someone in that part of the world was to use both hands. This is to hold out in the palm of both hands or grip some object with both hands while presenting it to another person. The implications are that it is a true gift or that you are freely giving or returning something to them. Most obvious is that there are no hands behind the back, nothing out of sight, no hidden agenda. It is to say, “I am completely letting free of this to you.” It is a great expression of relationship even to those whom you do not know.
As there was a mix of Roman Catholic with a dominance of Buddhist, I was never sure that the tradition had any particular religious underpinning.
Being on the river caused us to be exposed to people in their homes as many lived in boats on the water. We also purchased produce from local farmers when such things were in season; they too, often lived on a boat as the land was flooded half the year in the rice paddies. We were paid in currency of Viet Nam, Piasters, so we could easily purchase items as they came along.
I soon became the chief negotiator for our boat with a crew of four and our companion boat of four more. I’m not sure how this came about but I was probably the best of us with the language. My grandfather was a wholesale produce merchant in Chicago and had long before taught me how to sample for ripeness without cutting a melon open for example.
The quibbling for a price would start with a few coins lined up on the edge of the boat and usually ended with enough for both boats, often for much less than an equivalent dollar. These were people who lived on less than one hundred dollars per year, so it was incumbent on us to pay the exact amount or round up to whatever we had that was close.
The two-hand lesson from the policeman was that at some point I would pick up the coins or pull from my pocket the amount in question and offer it to him with both hands. This was often a way of signaling that this was my final offer and negotiations might be winding down. Words of thank you would be exchanged, “Com on, Ong” and then we would cast off. The purchased produce would also be presented with two hands.
So, this then is a look at how simple, subtle, and silent a relationship might be created or maintained. There were no words, just a simple expression of genuineness. Nothing held back. It is the little stuff that can hold us together.
Heavenly Lord, help us to seek out relationships with our neighbor and see you present those people that you place in our lives. Amen