Reflections on a Sneeze

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?'”

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.'”
Zechariah 7:5, 9-10 (NIV)

I was thinking about sneezing the other day. On a plane, heading down the runway amid the thunderous roar of the jet engines, I sneezed. A couple of seats over, a man who was obviously from a different culture and who was embroiled in what he was doing stopped what he was doing, looked at me, and said, “Bless you.”

“Blessing” someone who sneezes can be traced at least to the first century AD. There are many legends as to the motivation of its invention. History records that Pope Gregory I issued a command amidst the plague of 590 that anyone sneezing be blessed, as it was a common, early symptom of the plague. I find it fascinating that no matter where I am in the United States if a person sneezes then complete strangers will proactively, verbally offer a blessing to them. It’s a fascinating cultural ritual.

Back in the days of Zechariah, it was a common ritual to observe disasters with a period of fasting that might include saying or singing certain prayers of lamentation. When Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple were destroyed and the Hebrew people were taken into exile, they began observing a ritual fast each year that corresponded with the month of their city’s destruction. This continued each year for 70 years.

In today’s chapter, exiles have returned and Jerusalem and the Temple are being rebuilt. The people come to the Temple and inquire whether or not they should continue their ritual fast.

God’s reply through the prophet Zechariah is first to question the motivation of those who are fasting. “Why are you doing this?” God asks. “Are you doing it for me, or has it become some personal religious pageant to show how “good” you are?” God then pointedly offers what His heart’s desire is:

“Treat one another justly.

Love your neighbors.

Be compassionate with each other.

Don’t take advantage of widows, orphans, visitors, and the poor.

Don’t plot and scheme against one another—that’s evil.”

Zechariah 7:10 (MSG)

In other words, it’s like saying to “Mr. Bless You” on the airplane, “Why did you just say ‘Bless you’ to a stranger from whom you just hoarded all the overhead bin space so he had to gate check his carry on? Do you really care about the person who sneezed, or is your ‘Bless you’ just a rote ritual that isn’t about being a blessing at all?” [Note: The nice dude on my plane didn’t steal my overhead bin space, I’m just using the example as a parable.]

This was the exact message that Jesus came to proclaim:

“The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.

“Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next.

Matthew 23:2-6 (MSG)

One of the reasons that Christendom has been criticized, and rightly so, is that for centuries we’ve been great at making religious, ritual displays while flatly refusing to do the right thing by others. I can’t think of a better example than the Roman Catholic church’s gross mismanagement of the sex abuse scandals and refusal to deal with it as it was happening for decades.

But, that’s an easy target. In the quiet this morning, I confess that what is hard is for me to honestly examine my own heart, my own life, and my own religious rituals. I write blog posts. I stand up and teach others. I put my faith on public display. So what? Why do I do it? And, will I write nice words this morning only to go out into my day and take advantage of a client, treat an employee contemptuously, refuse to help a stranger in need? Do I worry so much about income, status, and possessions that I offer nothing of tangible value to others in need of real love, kindness, mercy, justice, and compassion?

Important questions for me to ponder as I walk out of my hotel room this morning.

Bless you, my friend. Seriously. Bless you. Thanks for reading.

Have you missed previous chapter-a-day posts from 1 Peter? Click on the image above for quick access to all the links!

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