The Pas Proper 17 – Ordinary/Lectionary 22 – Pentecost + 14
30 August 2015
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Compassionate God, you touch those rejected by the world and those despised by false piety: guide us away from a false purity which hides misshapen hearts; and lead us to the joyful feast in which all are renewed; through Jesus Christ, the beauty of God’s face. Amen.
In today’s gospel, we once again see Jesus at loggerheads with a group of Pharisees. We see him at odds with those who feel it’s their responsibility to bully the rest of society into remembering that they have a responsibility to God to strive to maintain a sense of physical ritual purity, and this time, it’s over the idea of whether or not one has washed their hands before having a meal.
I remember when I was growing up, especially when I visited my grandparents or any of my great aunts or uncles. With about 15 minutes or so to spare before a meal was ready, we were told that we should go and wash our hands; and if we’d been particularly messy out in the world, then our arms and faces, too, may need to be cleaned before we’d be welcomed at the table. And, I’m sure many have similar memories of this necessity to wash before sitting down to a meal with family.
And yet, today we see that the disciples, and particularly Jesus are being brought to task because the disciples, in their haste to sit down and enjoy a meal together, haven’t taken the time, not to mention the soap and the towel, and washed their hands before digging in.
“So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’” (Mk7:5)
And I’m sure you can see those gathered at the table, especially those who were in haste to sit down with their companions and enjoy a good lunch, suddenly pause, a little shamefaced, and look at their hands, knowing that they haven’t washed, that they haven’t followed the rituals set down by the elders.
But, once more, Jesus looks at this differently; and when Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees, we have to remember that Jesus comes amongst us not to uphold the law but rather to fulfill the law.
He comes to offer a different understanding so that God’s love, God’s compassion, and God’s forgiveness is available to all, not just to those who can ‘afford’ to give the proper offerings, sacrifices, and personal ritual to maintain ‘ritual purity’.
And this is where Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees and the scribes. The Pharisees are talking of ritual, they’re talking of being clean on the surface with the same exuberance our generation shows for the use of antibacterial soaps, lotions, and wipes. Yet it’s what happens beneath the surface, what takes place within the individuals heart, that can be truly unpleasant, which then is reflected in ones actions, and attitudes to the world around us, and it is this opportunity to be unpleasant that Jesus is talking about, today.
Perhaps these particular disciples are late to the meal because they’ve been working with the poor and marginalized, and so they rush to sit down at the meal because they know they’re late, and yet, the Pharisees would not go anywhere near the poor, or the marginalized.
Jesus tells us: “’This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mk 7:6b-8)
Jesus tells us, as he tells the crowds and the Pharisees that human laws and human traditions have overruled what God had originally commanded, so many generations before. That the human traditions toward washing ones hands, and not cleansing ones heart and mind have overcome the laws and the traditions that had been handed down from God.
Laws, traditions, and customs that had been forged in the desert over 40 years on the journey from slavery to freedom, as the Hebrew people learned what it means and how to be the people of God, the inheritors of the promises made to their ancestors regarding the land of Israel.
And this tends to happen, in human society. We adopt habits and patterns that after a while become ‘ritual’ without knowing the origin of the habit, nor do we absorb the ritual into our hearts and lives.
An example that comes to mind is a family who when cooking a ham in the oven would cut a 1” portion off of one end. The young lady did it, and her husband commented. She claimed she didn’t know why but she’d seen her mother do this same thing. She asks her mother, who likewise doesn’t know why she always cuts 1” off the end of the ham before baking it, but she’d seen her mother do this repeatedly. So the mother asks the grandmother. And the grandmother thinks about it for a while and begins to laugh. The reason for cutting 1” off the end of a ham before cooking was to make it fit into the roasting pan.
A habit begun three generations before in order to accommodate the size of the pan being used is now ingrained as ritual for this family, yet the origin of the ritual, two generations before, is lost and really adds nothing to the overall quality of the meal, or the shared meal experience.
In the same way, we don’t worship in the same manner that worship took place in the original house churches that once quietly dotted the Roman Empire following the spread of the Christian message by Paul, by Peter, and by the rest of the early disciples and leaders of the church. We don’t gather in someone’s home, weekly, and read the correspondence that we, today call the books of the bible, and follow that with song, with prayer, and with a potluck agape feast before going out into the world to minister to widows and orphans and the poor.
We don’t worship as we did in the fourth century, when we would meet in the churches with the doors locked to keep out those who are not initiated into, or are familiar with the rites of the Christian faith, or those who follow heretical Christian teachings. We don’t fast and pray fervently for the salvation of our family members, as we gather around God’s altar sharing the communion of bread and wine; and for those newly welcomed into the Christian body, milk, and honey as well.
Rather, today, we open our doors, we welcome people into the churches, and we baptize not only adults infants as well. We offer instruction to those who wish, to formally become members of our community, we rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit to ignite the fires of faith in our hearts, in the hearts of those we love, those who gather with us, and those we wish would gather with us.
Over the centuries, some things have remained the same – the reading of scripture, the inclusion of song, the willingness to pray, and to share in the Eucharistic feast, while other things have changed – the format of our services, who we will allow to worship with us, the age of baptism, and how we welcome newcomers into our community.
Yet, over the centuries, the generations, our desire to continue to learn from the words and actions of our Lord and Saviour, remains constant. So, today, we have this particular passage that describes the horror of the Pharisees that some of the disciples are more concerned with how clean the hands of ones dining companions are, rather than what comes out of their hearts, and mouths.
Jesus reminds us that it is what lives within us, what we use as fuel for our hearts, lives, and actions that is important. After all, if one is bent on destruction, on suppression of ones fellow human beings, then that is what comes out of them, and yet Jesus’ teachings are – to love as we are loved, to forgive as we are forgiven. Jesus encourages us to live the laws of Moses from deep within our hearts, not to let them glide across the surface of our consciousness, like water across our hands, and then carry on with our day.
We are encouraged to uphold the positive efforts of one another, and to work side by side with likeminded people.
Jesus tells us: “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mk 7:15, 21-22)
When the Pharisees complain that the disciples haven’t followed the rites of ritual purity, they are displaying that their concept of purity is only on the surface. Their concept of purity doesn’t extend to following the laws that God gave the Hebrew people through the efforts of Moses on the mountain.
The laws that the Hebrew people took 40 years to absorb into their lives, and which they are encouraged to continue to live in their hearts and lives as they take possession of the land that God had long ago promised to Abraham and Sarah.
But this is exactly what Jesus is saying. When we can live the intent of the commandments, the laws, that have been written on our minds and hearts by God’s love for each of us, then what comes out of our mouths, what is displayed in our actions. Then our lives are so much better than being upset over whether or not the person sitting next to us has not remembered to wash their hands before a meal.
And such attitudes, then are able to extend to the rest of our lives. The Pharisees are concerned with appearances, and from those appearances, they feel that the ritual purity will extend beyond skin deep, although the evidence seems to be contrary if they’re being this picky with the crowds around Jesus.
I’m sure if they wanted to model their ritual purity, they would pick up the basin and towel, and offer to wash the hands of those who are gathered at the table. We do have this example when we see Jesus getting up from the table, at the Passover meal to wash the feet of his disciples in John’s gospel. We see him assuming the role of a servant, washing the feet of his companions.
As Jesus points out, it’s not what we consume, whether food or drink, or the dirt on our hands that has the ability to make us unclean. Rather it’s the intentions of our hearts, the motivations and actions of our lives that is able to uphold us as the children of God, or to put us down to the same level as we see of the behaviour of the Pharisees who are with Jesus, today.
Yes, Jesus is once more at loggerheads with the authorities for his day, and, today around his table. His discrepancy is because Jesus knows what is in our hearts, what has led to our motivations, and the outcome we desire to see.
The question we need to ask ourselves is what does God, does Jesus want to see of each one of us, and how do we live that in and to the world around us?