Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23: Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So 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?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
….but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
….teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”… 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
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So we have come back to the Gospel of Mark for our appointed texts. I always like to keep track of the big picture, so I’ll remind you that there are assigned readings for each of the Sundays and festivals of the year. These are used by the majority of the mainline denominations with the purpose of creating a measure of unity across the churches and exposing us to the breadth of the Biblical witness.
The lectionary has a three-year cycle – one year in Matthew, one in Mark and one in Luke. Readings from John are scattered through all three years, mostly during Easter and festival days.
We have just finished five weeks on the 6th chapter of John that told the story of the feeding of the five thousand and talked about the meaning of that sign. Now we are back in Mark’s Gospel.
We left off in Mark’s Gospel right before the account of the feeding of the five thousand so that, instead of reading that story in Mark, we read it in John. The feeding of the five thousand is followed in both Gospels with Jesus walking upon the sea – and we touched on the meaning of that narrative a few weeks ago when we noted that Jesus walks on the sea he doesn’t walk on water. Walking on water is a suspension of the laws of physics. Walking on the sea is a demonstration that Jesus strides above every spiritual power on heaven and earth. The sea was thought to be governed by a god or spirit – and the narrative declares that Jesus is not subject to such spirits; they are subject to him.
You remember how Trump violated protocol when he was late to his meeting with the Queen of England, making her wait, then walked in front of her when they viewed the troops. It could have been nothing, but it gave the appearance that he was claiming to be more important than the queen. The story of Jesus walking upon the sea is like this. It proclaims that Jesus ranks above the spirits that govern the sea.
In Mark’s Gospel, these two stories of the feeding of the five thousand and walking upon the sea proclaim that Jesus is the one who stands above every other power with the authority to dispense the gifts of God. John, of course, sees something even more profound in that narrative. John sees that Jesus is the fulfillment of the story of Moses leading the people through the sea out from bondage into freedom. The bread that feeds the crowd is like the manna from heaven – though the true manna from the realm of God is Jesus himself. Jesus is the embodiment of the voice of God that Israel heard at Sinai. Jesus is also the sacrificial meal that the elders of Israel ate in God’s presence on Mount Sinai. Jesus death is the sacrifice that reconciles heaven and earth. And Jesus is the living word of God present in the bread and wine of communion to teach, heal and redeem us and all creation.
Mark doesn’t explore all of this in his telling of the story. He just tells the story and lets it proclaim Jesus’ authority to dispense to us and to the world all the gifts of God. Thus Mark ends his account with the people from the whole region bringing all who were sick to Jesus and all were healed. This is the setup for our reading this morning. Wherever Jesus goes, people bring to him all those who are sick and they are healed.
It is important for us to remember that what is being told to us here is not that Jesus has magic power over the biomechanics of disease, but that he dispenses the gifts of God. Secondly, the word we translate as ‘sick’ is actually the word ‘weak’. These are people who have lost their power. It can mean everything from those who have lost the strength of their legs or eyesight to those who have lost their courage and hope. It’s talking about those who have lost their place in their communities and their ability to assert their proper role.
This is like the word ‘poor’ in the scriptures, which isn’t a measure of economic wealth, but a measure of honor and place. So widows are described as ‘poor’ even if they have money, because they have lost their place in the community. We reflect this idea, too, when misfortune of any kind has happened and we say “that poor woman,” or “that poor man,” or “that poor child.”
People are bringing to Jesus those who are weak and vulnerable and dislocated. They are bringing those who have lost their power and their place. These are the people who live in fear or uncertainty. These are the people who live with pain. These are the people trodden down by the power of Rome. These are people who have lost their land or livelihood. And from Jesus there is healing; there is power. Through Jesus the face of God shines upon them. Through Jesus the life of God touches them. Through Jesus the power of the Spirit lights upon them. They are healed even from simply touching the fringe of his cloak.
The word we translate as ‘healed’ is actually the word ‘to save’. In Jesus they are saved. It doesn’t mean they get to go to heaven; it means their lives are made whole. Their life, their power, their place is restored. Salvation is food on your table and a roof over your head and respect in your community. Salvation is peace in your family and well-being in your home. Salvation is reconciliation with God and the face of God shining upon you. It is peace with God and one another. It is fidelity to God and one another.
And the word ‘to save’ is used in the imperfect tense. In Greek, the imperfect tense describes a continuous action, so being ‘saved’ is not a single event but an ongoing reality. It should be translated “they were being saved.” A new reality was at work in their lives. The reign of God had come to them.
All these people are brought to Jesus and the grace and power of God is restoring and transforming them. They are being filled with hope. They are receiving a future. They are being restored to their communities. Their lives are being made whole. But – and here’s the troubling and fearsome turn – the response of those in power is to challenge Jesus, declaring that he can’t be a holy man because some of his people don’t keep the tradition of the elders. In their eyes this can’t be the one who dispenses the gifts of God because some of his followers don’t follow the rules developed over the ages concerning purity.
It is important we recognize this about our narrative, today. This is not a story about tradition; it is a story about purity. And it is a profound debate about what lies at the heart of Biblical faith. What does God want from us? Does God want purity or justice?
I hope I can convey to you why this is such an earth shattering question – and it is at the very center of Jesus.
The question that is asked in our psalm today is:
1O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
….Who may dwell on your holy hill?
This is a question posed as people are entering into the holy precincts of the temple. You know that there are rules about how women have to be dressed when they go into the Vatican to see the fabulous art that is there. And at an amusement park there is a sign that you have to be this tall to ride the ride. What are the rules for entering into God’s presence in the temple courts?
The answer the psalmist gives is:
2Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
….and speak the truth from their heart;
3who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends,
….nor take up a reproach against their neighbors…
who stand by their oath
….even to their hurt;
5who do not lend money at interest,
….and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
True purity is about our care for one another. Those who are acceptable in God’s presence are those who have shown care and faithfulness to others, who have followed God’s command to do justice and mercy.
The answer the Pharisees give is to take the purity rules in Leviticus and elevate them as the central focus of God’s law. Leviticus contains the command “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), and the Pharisees read the law as the means to create a holy people. Jesus, however, sees the center of the law in the command – also from Leviticus – to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus sees at the heart of scripture the command to do justice and mercy. He stands in line with the prophets like Micah who said so famously, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
The whole temple complex at the time of Jesus is about ritual purity. Have you touched a dead body? Have you touched blood? Have you eaten the right foods? Did you use the right plates? Did you pour water over your hands before eating? These rules might seem silly to us because they our not our rules, but this is a very important idea – and Biblical faith stands or falls on whether you choose purity or justice.
Every society has notions of what is clean and unclean, what is acceptable and not acceptable. These apply to foods, behaviors, and physical spaces. In the United States we don’t eat dogs or horses or cockroaches. The thought fills us with an almost instinctive aversion. It doesn’t have anything to do with actual cleanliness or uncleanliness, even though we imagine it does; it is a perception learned by growing up in a community.
This notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is related to things being in their proper place. Dirt in the garden is soil; it belongs there. But soil in the kitchen is dirt; it doesn’t belong there. When things are out of place, they render the place “dirty”. Soil on the kitchen floor makes the kitchen dirty. When things, places and people become “unclean” there are rituals to make them “clean” again. In the case of the kitchen, a sweeping and mopping. It’s not enough to get the dirt back into the yard; the kitchen has to be cleansed.
And the thing about purity is that it only works one way. Drop your toast on the floor and the “dirty” floor – however clean it might be – the “dirty” floor renders the toast unclean. The ‘clean’ toast doesn’t make the floor ‘clean’.
“Dirt” is contagious. That’s why it has to be kept in its place. And that’s why people who are “dirty” have to be kept in their place. What’s at stake in this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is not that some of Jesus’ followers are lax about the rules. Some of Jesus’ followers are “dirty”. They don’t belong. So Jesus must be “dirty” too.
The problem with purity rules is the way they intersect with the human community. There are some who cannot keep all these rules. And there are those from outside our community who have a different set of rules.
These rules divide the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between those we perceive as ‘clean’ and those who we perceive as ‘unclean’, those who are “good people” and those who are not “good people”; those who are “normal” and those who are not; those who are “acceptable” and those who are not; those who belong and those who don’t.
Trump rose to prominence claiming that Obama wasn’t one of us. He wasn’t born here. He wasn’t like us. He was out of his proper place. He wasn’t “clean”. And so the country had to be purged of everything he touched.
Ugly things happen when we apply these rules of purity to the human community – especially when we think God is on the side of purity. Then you are not just unacceptable in my eyes; you are unacceptable in God’s eyes.
People with money are better able to keep purity rules. They can wear the right clothes, maintain the right appearance, avoid the wrong side of the tracks. In the time of Jesus, people with money had better access to clean water – and had servants to carry the water – for use in the rituals of cleansing by pouring water over your hands before eating. The poor are not so fortunate. They don’t have the resources. And they get stuck with the jobs that are ritually unclean – like working in a tax booth as did Matthew, or tending the pigs for some Gentile master like the prodigal son. The poor tend to be perpetually unclean measured by the standards of privileged society. And some of these are the people who are following Jesus.
“What kind of person are you, Jesus, to allow such people in your group?” Jesus is being disgraced and discredited as a teacher because he doesn’t make everyone observe the rules of purity. Jesus isn’t a defender of the moral sensibilities of the privileged.
It is a much more profound challenge than we might imagine, because our own purity rules are largely unconscious, and those rules that belong to other societies often seem silly to us. Besides, as Americans, we tend to rebel against social rules and traditions and want to be free of them. But the challenge is serious – and Jesus’ response is an even more profound challenge.
Whether a person is ‘clean’ and acceptable in God’s sight is not determined by the rules of ritual purity, but by the things that come out of the ‘heart’ – our words and actions. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by our failure to care for the well-being of others. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by the falsehoods we hold, the lies we tell, the envy we harbor. We are rendered ‘unclean’ when we take advantage of others in the marketplace. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by the callous things we say and the dirty looks we give to those who are different than us.
We are rendered ‘unclean’ when we fail to “do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.”
We are rendered ‘unclean’ not by our pots and absent rituals, but by our very real thoughts and deeds.
But here, before us, is the one who brings the gifts of heaven. Here, before us, is the one who comes to heal and make whole. Here, before us, is the one who comes to forgive and reconcile. Here, before us, is the one who feeds us with the true bread of life and grants us new birth as God’s children. Here, before us, is the one who welcomes us, ‘unclean’ as we may be, and summons us to follow God’s way of justice and mercy.
© David K Bonde, 2018, All rights reserved.
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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_and_the_Saduccees_Come_to_Tempt_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_et_les_saduc%C3%A9ens_viennent_pour_tenter_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons