By Pastor Cherie Johnson
We just finished up the last several weeks with the Psalms. For the next couple of weeks we’ll be hanging out with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, considered by most scholars to be one of the earliest Gospels, and written in a breathless style, where everything is immediate.
Jesus is traveling around the Sea of Galilee. John the Baptist has been executed by Herod. Jesus fed the 5000, the crowd that was following him around by this time. He and the disciples cross the sea, and Jesus walked on water. When they arrive at Gennesaret, he was literally mobbed by people bringing the sick to be healed. They would bring them to the market place in the villages.
That is where we are when today’s scripture begins.
Mark 7:1-15, 21-23 (NIV)
1 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2 saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles. ) 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ”
‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” 9 And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.
13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’ “
21 For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'”
In the beginning of this reading it seems like such a domestic scene. It is quite familiar, having an argument over washing your hands before dinner. How many of you as a parent or as a child have had this kind of discussion?
Certainly, there must be more to this passage then discussing washing hands before eating, which has been the topic of dinner conversations with children in millions of places? The answer to that question is both yes and no. It is about hand washing, but there’s more going on here. With children, maybe they just forgot, or maybe they don’t think that handwashing is that important. They are frustrated by all the rules, so then it becomes about testing the boundaries of parental authority. The question of authority is part of what’s going on here. (David Lose)
By this time, Jesus has become quite a figure. He has thousands of people following him around, which is why he had to feed five thousand of them on the other side of the sea. People are mobbing him for healing, and the powers that be are getting a little nervous. They want to test him and make sure that his teaching is sound.
I often sympathize with the Pharisees. They represent a part of the Jewish order, very much like we are in the church. Their original motivation was good, to make sure that people were following the law. In Jesus’ time, Palestine/Judea was living under the occupation of the Roman Empire. Many thought the reason for that was that the Jewish people weren’t following the law. God made a covenant with Israelites, a deal, a promise (but it was much more than that). If they follow the law, God would basically take care of them. Most of the Old Testament is the story of Israelites, or some part of the twelve tribes of the Israelites, abandoning God, getting into trouble, crying out to God, and God rescuing them. One of those tribes was Judah, which became Judea, which is how the people got the name Jewish or Jews.
There have been many occupiers and oppressors. The Pharisees thought if they could get this following the law thing right and got all the Jewish people to follow it, God would remove their oppressors, and they could be independent. So, they made up these rules to help people follow the law. What constitutes work on the Sabbath? How does one keep oneself pure or “clean.”
There are all kinds of things in the law that would make a person ritually unclean, interacting with non-Jewish people or sinners or other people who were already ritually unclean through a variety of reasons. The sick would be unclean by default because their sickness was considered a punishment for their sins. You might run into these people in the marketplace, where Jesus and the disciples had just been healing people, so you would wash before eating. These days, we want to make sure that we’re not contaminated by bacteria or viruses. They were worried about another kind of contamination.
So, when the Pharisees see Jesus and the disciples come from the marketplace and some of them started eating without purifying their hands, they asked Jesus about it. Notice they did not accuse Jesus specifically about it.
Jesus does not even acknowledge their question directly, but goes in a completely different direction. See, there is no particular law about this hand washing ritual. This is a rule that was created to help people become ritually clean in a way that was greater than what the law required. The idea was if you go beyond the requirements of the law, you are less likely to break the law in the first place. The problem comes in when the rules, traditions, or rituals become more important than the reason why they were created in the first place.
Over time the rules also became increasingly more complicated and precise. The only problem was that it became difficult to follow one rule without breaking another.
I love to drive. It gives me a feeling of adventure of control of excitement. It’s like a rollercoaster, but I get to decide how fast I go down the hill or around the curve. However, I also make a great effort to follow the rules of the road. With my red car, I even go a hair under the speed limit knowing how red catches the eye, especially of law enforcement. When I moved to Washington DC to go to seminary, I became quite frustrated. I won’t even go into one way streets and random curbs that block your passage, forcing you to turn right or left when the map says you should be able to go straight. A large part of my frustration was at stop lights. Very often there would be 10 or 12 different signs telling you what you could do and what you could not do. What was required and what was prohibited. Almost all of them were written in words rather than symbols, and very often they were contradictory. In order to follow one of the rules you had to break another one.
This is the kind of thing that Jesus is talking about in his example, except in this case the human made rule is not simply making the person break another rule, but God’s law.
Remember from the Deuteronomy passage earlier, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you” (Deut 1:2). But this is exactly what they did with their rules.
Jesus isn’t simply interested in making the outside of us clean, the surface. How many of you are familiar with Winnie the Pooh? He is a character from children’s literature, a bear who loves honey. In one escapades of this down to earth, lovable toy bear, who attempts to trap an elephant, or as he mispronounces it, a Heffalump.
Heo digs a hole to catch the Heffalump, and decides to bait the trap with some of his own favorite food: honey. But, he likes honey so much, he can’t stand to leave a whole jar of it in the trap, so he begins to eat some of it himself… Excusing himself with the thought that it’s important to make sure it really is honey, all the way down. It wouldn’t do to have anything else, perhaps cheese or something, at the bottom. And of course by the time he’s quite sure it really was honey all the way down, the jar is empty… For him what matters is what the jar really contains, all the way down. If it’s only got honey at the top, but something quite different underneath, he needs to know. (N.T. Wight)
What is the point of all the rituals or laws? To make us the sort of person God always had in mind. Someone who is pure and holy all the way down to the bottom of their heart, not merely on the surface in a superficial way.
Jesus says in Mark 12:29-31 (and elsewhere) that the summary of the law and the prophets is to love God and love neighbor, or people. Following made up rules, while ignoring the rest or putting a priority on the rules over the law, is pointless.
What is Jesus challenging us to do here? He is asking us, as part of the crowd, two things. Are we walking the walk? Do our actions match are stated intentions? In his letter, James says in 2:15-16, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”
Jesus also it challenges us to examine our traditions and rituals. It’s hard to look at the things that were used to, that look and feel so familiar. You may have heard the old joke, “How many Methodist does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Change? Change? My grandfather donated that lightbulb!”
Just this week, several of us were talking about moving some chairs. They included the chairs in the choir loft and these two chairs above the altar, but there was some concern that even though we’re not actually using them, it might upset some people.
Notice that Jesus is not saying to do away with all traditions and rituals. He’s illustrating perhaps the unintended consequences of a particular rule, but the problem can’t be resolved because it is never examined.
What if we examined what we do and why? What was the original intention? Is it accomplishing that? Is it still in need? Maybe it is. Maybe it makes us feel closer to God. Maybe it makes it easier for people to worship.
We could also think about making new traditions. What if one Sunday a month, we had a shorter worship service and then went out to do something in the community to show God’s love? They are things to think about, and there are plenty of other good things to consider. Change can be scary, but we can always experiment. Try something out, and see if it works. We have some big ideas with our new fellowship building, a great opportunity for us to show the community the love of God and neighbor in a variety of ways.
I recently saw a very funny, albeit vaguely sacrilegious, YouTube clip of some old 1960s movie about Jesus that has been dubbed to put different words in Jesus mouth. In the clip, Jesus goes up to each disciple to criticize the ways they messed up. They may have done something, said something, or thought something wrong. Having delivered this bad news to the disciples Jesus then turns to a crowd and tells them that he is come to earth for just one purpose, to tell them that they were sinners and there was no hope. That’s it. Of course, that is the opposite of what Jesus says in John 3:17, that he did not come to condemn the world but to save it.
Jesus did not come to condemn us. He wants us to succeed. He came to show us the true nature of God’s love, offer us forgiveness and grace, inspire us and show us how to become the people God intended us to be, people who love God and other people, all the way down all the way through. As Jesus disciples, we are to demonstrate God’s love to the people we come in contact with and with the world. It’s our choice. It’s a choice we have to make every day. What will you decide?