22nd Sunday Ordinary time 9-2-18
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15:2-5; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23
After reading from John’s Gospel for more than a month, we need a re-orientation to the Gospel of Mark. John wrote to help established Christians deepen their understanding of their faith, while Mark wrote to a non-Jewish, or “Gentile” audience new to the faith. One reason we know this is that Mark has to explain hand washing, and other Jewish traditions.
We’re not yet half-way in Mark’s Gospel, but the Pharisees are already plotting how they can destroy Jesus. They have already tried to shame and discredit Jesus by pointing out that the Apostles did not fast (which was required), and that they had picked some grain to eat when they were hungry on the Sabbath (which was forbidden). Meanwhile, Jesus had raised a little girl from the dead, he had walked on water, and wherever he went, the sick were brought to him, and he healed them. He had taught great crowds and did the miracle of multiplying the fish and loaves; it must have been an exhilarating and amazing time for the apostles. If ministry was always like that, everyone would want to be a priest!
But now the Pharisees return to verbally attack Jesus again. When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t keep the tradition of hand-washing, their question isn’t a request for information. It’s a challenge to his whole ministry. From the point of view of the Pharisees, a person couldn’t be from God and not wash his hands before dinner in accordance with the tradition. (Remember “germs” hadn’t been discovered yet.) Now, there is nothing wrong with cherishing Traditions that have been handed down to us, tried and true. But if we cherish tradition, we must also be careful that we are clear about what it is that we’re cherishing. Otherwise, the focus on things like clean hands and cups could threaten the whole point of God’s Law—and that is to have right relationships among people and between people and God.
The Pharisees challenge Jesus’ disciples’ failure to observe what Mark calls the “tradition of the elders” (7:5). It’s described by modern anthropologists as “The Great Tradition,” a set of practices defined, maintained, and practiced by urban-living elite Jews of Jesus’ day. Peasants, travelers like Jesus, fisherman, and those who raised sheep and goats simply weren’t able to maintain these traditions because of the realities of their living conditions and their jobs, as well as the scarcity of water. The Pharisee’s criticism was, from the start, very unfair and unreasonable.
So where did the tradition of hand washing start? Like many Jewish rituals, it began during the Exodus (30:19-20) from Egypt. God told the priests they must wash their feet and hands before they entered the tabernacle (temple) tent. The spiritual reason for this was to enter the presence of God with a pure heart. So God gave them a meaningful symbol (hand washing) of an important spiritual truth (purity of heart). To pray, to worship, to enter sacred space, we must prepare ourselves, as we do when we say our confession and be absolved of sin at the beginning of our service each Sunday. We try to begin with a pure heart, with open ears and mind.
But we humans often have a way of making required spiritual exercises out of meaningful symbols. The Jews turned God’s request to begin worship with a pure heart into an elaborate and highly detailed bureaucratic, burdensome procedure of ritual cleansing with strict regulation of the amount of water, the way the hands were held, etc., etc. for which the priests received payment. Sadly, it reminds me of my grandson’s baptism, which was so openly void of spirituality that my son and his wife never went to church again.
Anyway, before long, the Jewish ritualized cleansing replaced the spiritual exercise that it had represented in the beginning. The outward symbol of washing was no longer a sign of an inward grace of purity, but the ritual had become an end in itself. Why was it done? Because it was required; it was “what we do”. Religion had lost its spirituality; instead ritual controlled -rather than enriched- life. The cleansing ritual caused people to lose sight of the goal: purity of heart. Thus Jesus says, “Their heart is far from me, and in vain they worship me.” He calls the Pharisees “Hypocrites” they have replaced heart-felt religion with lip service, and turned God’s symbol of washing into a type of theater. In fact, The Greek word hypokrites means “actor.” An appropriate way to read Jesus’ insult in English would be: “You actors! Scripture may be the lines you quote, but is it not the script by which you live.”
Jesus tells the crowd that a little dirt – or anything else- on the outside of a person has nothing to do with how pure their heart is. Instead, he charges, our hurtful words and evil behavior come from inside of us. It is those muddy thoughts we do not control, those dirty images we keep in our heads, those horrible greedy and evil things humans do which destroy our purity of heart and separate us from God.
In our 2nd reading, James, always the practical preacher, gives us this definition: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God… is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Pure religion is not necessarily done in a typical sacred space. Pure religion is caring for the innocent and helpless, helping the destitute, the starving, the sick, and those who have lost hope. There is an incredibly urgent need for pure religion in this world.
James warns us, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” We must keep our focus on the goal of love, and not become lost or stained by the divisive, angry, bickering, backstabbing world. So every time you wash your hands, think of having a pure heart, with your heart, soul, and mind always ready to be in the presence of God.