Yr B ~ Pentecost 15 ~ Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I hope you can picture the scene this reading paints. It doesn’t say precisely, but this early part of Mark’s gospel has Jesus travelling in the Judean countryside teaching, healing, and gathering crowds. He’s just fed thousands, and healed many, and when he gets out of a boat at a new town people recognize him and come running. In other words, he’s causing a stir and getting noticed.
What happens when an upstart itinerant preacher starts gathering followers?
Well, obviously, the powers that be need to go and check him out.
Here’s where we start:
Mark 7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him…
They’ve come all the way from Jerusalem to investigate. What do they do?
They gather around him and the disciples. It’s almost like they’re encircling them, surrounding them.
I read that as being pretty intimidating!
So they’ve come to judge but they don’t even bother to wait to hear what Jesus might have to say, because as soon as they arrive they see a clear violation.
v.2 …[They gathered around him and] they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.
And then the narrator conveniently fills us in on the reason why this is such a bad thing. Mark 7:3-4 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews [even, presumably, Jesus and the disciples!], do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and 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.)
Unclean hands! Oh the horror!
Ok, it’s easy for me to mock, and it sounds ridiculous to our ears, but in their time and place this was a ceremonial no-no. I’m sure we can imagine all sorts of things that if someone came in here and did a certain thing that we’d be shocked and dismayed and cluck about how wrong it was. We’ve all got our stuff!
The religious powers-that-be are bent out of shape because some disciples didn’t wash their hands. They use the word defile. It’s used 4 times in this reading!
The Greek word is koinos (koy-nos) and it means to be stripped of sacredness – reducing what God calls special to something mundane. It happens when a person treats what is sacred (set apart to God) as ordinary (“not special”).
Think about that for a minute.
The underlying message here is that our hands, our bodies, are actually sacred things until we treat them otherwise.
Sure, it was a basic hygiene thing too. Humans ought to eat with clean hands so as not to thoughtlessly risk sickness.
But that’s not what the Pharisees are concerned with. Theirs is actually a very high religious concept.
Pharisees get the short end a lot in Christian circles when they probably shouldn’t – and they’re going to come out on the wrong side of Jesus’ teaching here too – but it isn’t because they’re thoughtless and don’t care – it’s because they’re so worried about the tiny little trees that they’re missing the forest. They are portrayed as thinking that if they take care of all the outward little ceremonial things that they’ve done enough.
Jesus, insightfully, cuts right through that and gets to the heart of it – all those little rules and regulations don’t matter a bit if your heart isn’t changed.
Mark 7:5 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?”
I bet you’ve heard yourself say, on more than one occasion, “Why can’t the younger generations live according to the traditions of their elders? Why does it seem like all the rules have gone out the window?”
Maybe we all have some Pharisee in us!
Mark 7:6 Jesus said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites…
Remember, Jesus is the upstart outsider here. He’s the one who’s causing the trouble according to the Pharisees and the scribes and the traditions. They’ve come to check him out and the very first thing he says to them is to call them hypocrites.
Well, technically I guess Isaiah calls them hypocrites, but if you’re on the receiving end of that I doubt you’d notice that little detail.
Literally, a hypocrite is an actor behind a mask – as in someone who is two-faced – says one thing but does another, or, more pointedly, claims something lofty but doesn’t embody it and live it out.
Jesus continues in vv.6-8 – “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites as it is written, ‘This people honors 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 [to love] and hold to human tradition.”
You gotta feel for the Pharisees. I mean, they’re really trying hard to do right. They’ve studied the Torah, the laws laid down through Moses, and they are confident that the steps they take, if followed in detail, are what’s necessary to live pure, righteous, and holy lives. Then along comes this Jesus guy and upsets the apple cart.
They don’t seem to realize that to come in and see Jesus for the first time and to criticize something like hand washing is to completely miss the point.
If one focuses on outer, human-made rules so hard that it crowds out your ability to actually understand and embody the reasons why those rules were made in the first place, you’re likely to miss the point.
Rule-making churches do this all the time – and don’t think we’re exempt just because we’re “liberal”!
For example, some gathered here will remember that it used to be forbidden to play cards, or go to the movies on a Sunday. We’ve still got all kinds of subtle rules!
What Jesus is saying is pretty revolutionary.
He is not necessarily condemning the rules.
Other places in the New Testament reveal that he followed the rules a lot of the time – but he always, always, always insisted on the deeper meaning over the surface action.
In verses 14-15 he tries to say it really plainly:
Then Jesus called the crowd again [which means he is literally shouting over the heads of the Pharisees and scribes that are encircling him – picture that!] and said to the crowd, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile [or make unsacred], but the things that come out are what defile.”
The lectionary selection leaves out a few important verses that I’d like to look at.
Mark 7:17-19 When Jesus had left the crowd [and presumably the Pharisees] and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the (teaching). He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?”
– and by sewer he means toilet – and yes, that’s probably why they left this verse out – because it’s too earthy for our dainty little ears!
And it finishes with: (Thus Jesus declared all foods clean.)
But the declaring all foods clean part isn’t what’s important here. It’s the insight – the profound spiritual truth – that stuff like food or cleanliness or surface rules are never the issue.
The issue – the source of our challenge – is not the stomach or the surface but the heart!
Our problems – our spiritual problems – are not from without, they’re from within.
You can follow every church rule ever made but if your heart is unmoved you are not accomplishing anything.
And what’s worse is that following all the rules gives you the sense that you’re doing a great job being spiritual – but you might actually just be deepening the problem.
Look, being a church attender, being a Christian, is no guarantee that we’ve got this right.
The problem of the Pharisees is alive and well right here (place), and right here (heart).
Despite Jesus’ clear and constant teaching all throughout scripture we’ve largely managed to miss the point in the Christian church and make it all about believing the right things – having the right opinions – following the right rules. That’s all stuff from without – not within.
We’ve mostly made our religion a religion about Jesus, not of Jesus.
Even my message last week runs that risk. If we talk about putting on the armour of God we can confuse that with being about outward things – like you can put on some stuff (like worship, or offerings, or helping out) and then take it off again when you walk out the door.
But Jesus clearly says it’s not stuff from without that matters – it’s the stuff from within. It’s not our outward postures it’s our inward transformation. It’s heart stuff.
Mark 7:21-23 Jesus says, “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.”
All these evil things come from within, and they threaten to strip us of our sacredness. They reduce what God calls sacred (your heart, your spirit) to something mundane.
Does that mean that outer things aren’t important? Of course not!
Those rules come from a high-minded place.
The challenge is to remember to go deeper and make sure the desire to follow the rules is coming from a transformed place within us rather than hoping that following the rules will fix us up and score us points.
The hard part of all this is that stuff from without is way easier to engage than stuff from within. Pharisees want to control all that bad stuff out there from getting in here. That’s actually not a bad thing. It just misses the point.
What’s in here (heart) is already troublesome enough in its own way.
And it likes to hide in dark corners.
And it’s remarkably good at disguising itself when we look in the mirror.
Please. Hear this.
I’m not saying we are all inherently evil and bad.
Just the opposite.
Remember those Pharisees were worried about the stuff without defiling us – marring our inherent sacredness.
You and I are all inherently sacred.
Genesis calls that being made in the image of God.
Never forget this. At your absolute core, at the absolute centre of who you are, is the presence of God, the image of God, the stuff of God.
And as we live we get lazy and forget that – we make mistakes, and that list of evil intentions that Jesus names – what the bible likes to call “sin” (our falling short of God’s image within) – despite our best intentions seems to come forth.
The reason is what we now call our ego.
Our ego wants to push all that God-stuff out of the centre and be in complete control.
That’s a serious enough battle within without worrying about outside stuff.
And how does the heart win the battle with the ego?
By consciously, and intentionally, and humbly opening ourselves to the power and presence of the Spirit of God and allowing that light that glows at our core to grow – and as it grows it crowds out the ego.
That’s transformation. And it never, ever stops.
That’s the deeper spiritual truth that Jesus tries to make those Pharisees – these Pharisees – see.