Putting things to the test: Litmus Tests...you can't belong unless you choose/act "right"
A litmus test in chemistry uses a reactive substance to test whether a solution or substance is more or less acidic or basic...usually with a bit of paper that is dipped into it, noting if it changes color. Socially, politically or theologically, a litmus test is an evaluation on whether or not a person's position is acceptable to the standards of a group, party or sect. It is a measuring stick of worthiness...will that one being tested be allowed "in" to the system?
Joseph's actions have always struck me as a little "arch" in these episodes from the saga of his separation and reunification with his brothers and father. He keeps setting them up, pushing them to and fro and stringing them on. He gives them all they hope for, while at the same time setting them up as "thieves" by having the money they used to purchase grain hidden in their baggage. He hides his identity from them and seems to be continually testing them...what is he looking for? There is more to this than just pushing his brothers into a test to see whether they are worthy of deliverance. He seems to be working to purge and mend the brokenness in their family, using those deceptions to untangle the tangled mess their family has become.
In the end, he reveals himself and offers reconciliation...but how excruciating it is to witness the deceit! Oh what a web we weave! His brothers betrayed and sold him into bondage. His pushing and pulling might be seen as revenge, but in many ways this testing and trying is an untangling of all of the lies, crimes and affronts that got them to this point. He has delivery from famine to offer, but how to find a way to heal the rifts of family dysfunction that block that deliverance? Things turn out for the good, but oh what a journey of testing and tempering is required before that reconciliation can occur. His dreams come true...his brothers wind up kneeling before him...but through the testing Joseph puts them all through (including himself), that submission winds up being mutual and ultimately purposed for the salvation of the people of God. It is not just about testing, it is about healing rifts in relationships.
In the Psalm, the target of evaluation is....us....can we live in God's tent, will we be able to live on God's holy mountain? Only the one who can demonstrate more virtue than anyone I have met. Thing is, with God, I don't believe a single one of us can pass a litmus test of righteousness. Being accepted by God is more about God's mercy, desire and love for us than it can be for ANY purity we might obtain through our own choices or positions on issues. We are welcomed because God welcomes us...blessed because God blesses us. It makes sense, but that sort of mercy does seem to fly in the face of our apparent glee in pushing people that we are in relationship with to somehow prove themselves to us (and to God?)
Finally, we have a response from God in Christ: Accused of allowing impurity in his students by Pharisees who take exception to their not washing their hands in a right manner and fashion, he teaches that there is nothing that we can put into us that can pollute. Using a metaphor of the digestive process: Good food enters the body and waste leaves it. It is what comes from us that pollutes. In other words, Jesus is saying that it is more important to cleanse our hearts than our hands, if we are to find God's purifying will for us. If we are going to worry about passing a test of holiness, says Jesus, then we need to pay attention to what is passing out from us and into the world in our behaviors...what matters more to God is the content of our heart and the intention of our actions, rather than an initial offering surface adherence to broken or distorted systems fashioned by human choices and self-imposed regulations. What matters more is not how we conform to a system's litmus tests...rather we are called out of those systems to see and love each other as we are loved by God, purposed for relationship that is not distorted or twisted up, but healed and restored by God's love and mercy.