a Homily for Proper 17B
Text: Mark 7:1-23
Those Dirty Hands
You may have noticed that I read the whole gospel pericope, not the shortened version in the lectionary. The primary reason is because the full story makes more sense than the edited version. The second reason is because what was removed is the part in which Jesus explains why He condemns the Pharisees. And as much as we look to be Jesus’s disciples, we must not be afraid to recognize ourselves in those Pharisees.
The big issue in the text is that the disciples gathered around Jesus and started to eat food without washing up. The Pharisees see this and take their outrage to Jesus. This is total triangulation. The Pharisees’ beef is with the disciples, but instead of going to them, they go to Jesus. They hope to get Jesus to change the disciples’ behavior. Hence, the triangle. They are angry, so they direct their anger at Jesus. Apparently for “allowing” it to happen. It is so much like that familiar tail of the neighbor complaining to Mom and Dad about their boy who hits his ball into said neighbor’s backyard. “What’s wrong with your parenting/teaching?” the neighbor projects. They move issue from the ball to the parent.
Jesus turns the tables on them by pointing out how much more important tradition is to them than pleasing GOD and fulfilling the Law. And worse, he argues that they break the Law to preserve tradition. His example is the commandment to Honor your father and mother. The Pharisees, he argues, make it all about GOD, therefore rejecting the honor they are to give to fathers and mothers; other flesh-and-blood people. Honor that is supposed to go to people, they give only to GOD. So Jesus is arguing that they are breaking a commandment. Therefore, when it comes to purity laws, it isn’t the stuff that gets on a person that makes him or her impure, it is what comes out of them, specifically from their hearts. He’s saying what you believe and how you act on that belief: that’s where the evil is.
Just in case we don’t catch how scripturally appropriate, but radical Jesus is being here, note in verse 19 it says parenthetically “(Thus he declared all foods clean.)” Is he suggesting we no longer follow Levitical laws condemning shellfish and pork, too?
The Evil in Our Hearts
The hardship for us is that we may be tempted to overlook our own Pharisaical nature: the ways we’re just like those Pharisees. How our tradition means more to us than following Jesus. One of the common jokes about Episcopalians is that you ask virtually any Christian what is meant by “the Good Book” and they’ll say The Bible. You ask a group of Episcopalians and they’ll say “The Book of Common Prayer!” And actually mean it!
We wade into some pretty dangerous waters when we place the trappings of church: our clothing, our pulpits, our stained glass, our pews, and yes, our Prayer Book, over GOD’s presence with us, what we are being taught now, not just yesterday, and what the Spirit is calling us to do.
I can’t help but see my church in this gospel today. I love my church. I love this church, which remember is not the building, but the people gathered in community to worship GOD. I love St. Paul’s. But man, we like tradition.
Kester Brewin suggests that if Amtrak were in the transportation business, they’d have built airplanes. I’d extend that metaphor to say if Delta were in the transportation business today, they’d be building high-speed rail. Brewin makes this point to turn the spotlight on our churches: we have a specific business and we are called to fulfill it; but is that business reconciling the world, or simply gathering weekly for worship? Churches and traditions get stuck. We’re called to be the blessed community, actively reconciling the world and bringing the Kingdom closer. That’s our business. And yet we argue about types of candles on the altar, whether or not we were notified about some event in the community, and how long our meetings run. We need to continuously learn how to be that community GOD has called us to be.
This is why Jesus argues to them that the evil is within us, not something that ruins us from without. Think of all of those television preachers that rail against the evils of the world and we must defend ourselves against their corrupting influence: in other words, the evil cooties. Instead Jesus has us examine our hearts to find the problem.
What do you think we’ll find there?
Letting the Good Stuff Out
Hope…I hope. Love. Compassion. Goodness. We weren’t created to be a vessel for evil. We were created for good. On the 6th day GOD declared that creation was very good. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have our moments. It doesn’t mean that we won’t be challenged by what’s going on around us. And it isn’t another opportunity to beat ourselves and one another up for not being perfect. But, it is a vision of the world that isn’t superstitious or abusive or a world in which human understandings of purity, order, and justice are elevated above GOD’s. And that includes those human understandings we attribute to GOD. Those laws in Leviticus that we have no trouble cherry-picking already, for example. Or blue laws in which we think GOD cares one second whether or not we shop at Target on Sunday (and for the record, the Sabbath is Saturday). That stuff isn’t GOD’s. It’s ours.
In some ways, it is really useful for us that this all comes up over something so mundane and unspiritual to us as washing hands. Because we might be tempted to avoid Jesus’s argument. To be peacemakers trying to get Jesus to just get His people to wash their hands, so as not to upset anybody. That’s how we do things normally, isn’t it? But Jesus all but says “the only evil here is you.” The keepers of the faith. The scholars. The devoted ones. The committed. These are the people Jesus calls out, and it sounds a lot like us.
Because we are being called out for our missing of GOD’s point, Jesus sends us in the right direction: to embrace what GOD has instructed: Love GOD and one another. Be the blessed community. Proclaim the gospel to all nations. Feed the hungry, cure the sick, clothe the naked. Change unjust structures in our world. That is our work. Jesus has given us permission to break those Laws we’ve created for GOD that aren’t really GOD’s so that we might actually walk the way Jesus has taught us—to live the true Laws GOD has given us. Laws about love, support for the weak, and building the community. Let’s get to work.