We are so much like the Pharisees. We really are. We focus on the rules, not their purpose or how they encourage us to build strong relationships with GOD, one another, and the wider community. That is their purpose: those relationships. The rules are supposed to lead us to GOD. But we rather stay where we’re at and mess about with the rules themselves; tweak them like by-laws.
Jesus as the bad influence your parents never warned you about
Proper 17B | Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
It was way back in July, the third week, the middle of summer, when we were last in our main story. We were going along in the book we call Mark and we had just read about Jesus being rejected, about The Twelve being called and the death of John the Baptizer. We were just getting to the feeding of the multitudes when the lectionary took a detour through the book we call John. We heard its version of the feeding and a whole month of Jesus’s teaching on bread.
We pick it up shortly after Mark’s version of the Feeding of the Multitudes. He has that part about the disciples crossing the sea amidst a storm. And then we get this great little space at the end of chapter 6 in Mark. For those that want to read along, it is verses 53-56 [Mark 6:53-56].
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Jesus is a popular dude. They love him; at least what he can do. At least in this particular way, at least what he can do for them. They bring their loved ones to be healed and everybody that touches him, is healed. That’s hugely different then what happens in John 6, where they try to get their hands on Jesus to make him king by force, remember? These people aren’t thinking king, they’re thinking about their sick loved ones. Here, touching isn’t power and force, its healing and redeeming.
Then we move into chapter 7 and the scene shifts from the crowds, the disciples, and those in need, to the religious elites. These people question Jesus on his teaching. His people aren’t purifying themselves. A big no-no.
Jesus hears them and then turns it around. He doesn’t respond to their question about purity and tradition. Instead, he points out how they break tradition. Our reading this morning cut out the middle verses, the part where Jesus proves how they don’t really care about tradition, maintaining the Law. In these verses, 9-13, he raises the question of honoring one’s father and mother. We remember this as one of the Ten Commandments. We read in Leviticus, that if you talk back to your parents, you are to die. If you hit your parents, you are to die. If you ignore or trash talk your parents, you are to die.
And Jesus calls them hypocrites because none of these people are killing their own children. In fact, they are teaching that any good a child does for her parents is an offering to GOD. So honor isn’t required, it’s optional, a gift. Optional for parents and for GOD. That’s why they’re hypocrites. They aren’t doing it and making up excuses for not doing it. They can’t be trusted on matters of Law. Many can probably guess why the lectionary cut this part out.
This is the trouble we get into with the gospel. We do the same as the Pharisees do here, and what Jesus criticizes them for. We pick and choose within our faith, and what it means to believe in GOD, and for us, to follow Jesus. The Scripture tells us to do this and we don’t. But other stuff. Well, that’s law. We have to. And we do this all the time with shrimp and cotton blends and bacon. We trim beards, keeping them short and styling them! That stuff we can ignore. That is not essential, we argue.
Or we blame our hypocrisy on Jesus, saying that he abolished all that stuff in death. We’ve got grace, so we’re good.
That’s why Jesus says
“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
This is the definition of hypocrisy, the real problem for Jesus: abandoning GOD’s command and holding instead to local tradition, human practice, our people’s ways. It is replacing GOD’s command with society’s.
This is why he calls the people around and teaches them about the inner and the outer defilement / impurity. This is a very nontraditional / unorthodox teaching. He is going against traditional teaching; he is mixing things up for them. This is one of his most radical moments in all of the gospels. Hear that. He is trying to change the people’s understanding of this tradition by fulfilling its foundation, its primary essence. Listen!
He argues that the impurity that GOD cares about isn’t the exterior stuff: it isn’t what you touch or if it’s your time of the month. Ritual purity isn’t about whether or not you wash your hands after using the bathroom or before you eat. That’s about keeping sanitary. That’s a real thing. Take care of that.
But true ritual purity, getting right with GOD, doesn’t involve washing hands or watching what you eat. It is about the inside, where your heart is. But it really isn’t about our bodies at all; even the insides and the outsides. He’s using the inner/outer language to say that it isn’t about the codes themselves or the physicality of ritual. It is about your relationship with GOD. It is about loving and obeying GOD. It is about being the people we are called to be. GOD doesn’t call us to police one another and nitpick about our ritual purity. We have been gathered in community to be a witness to the power of GOD, to share with one another, and be the means by which the community is transformed.
We are so much like the Pharisees. We really are. We focus on the rules, not their purpose or how they encourage us to build strong relationships with GOD, one another, and the wider community. That is their purpose: those relationships. The rules are supposed to lead us to GOD. But we rather stay where we’re at and mess about with the rules themselves; tweak them like by-laws. Ritual purity is not the end in and of itself, it is the beginning to the more important, much deeper and more profound relationship. The relationship with GOD and all of creation.
Instead of focusing on that relationship, we are prone to focus on the details, the structure, the actions themselves. Or else we worry about the words we choose or the politics of the situation. We deal in the how rather than the why.
And Jesus says that what separates us, what blocks that relationship, what leads us to sin is our relationship to tradition. For us, that may be how we love our Prayer Book more than our friends. Or our sacred music or our sacred vessels or our sacred time at 8 or 10 each Sunday more than we love GOD. That we are creatures of habit and tradition more than we are followers of Jesus.
It is really hard to tell the difference between traditions that are really about us and feeding our egos or fitting in with our culture more than they are listening for Jesus, for what Jesus tells us: building our relationship with GOD. I don’t have a cheat sheet. But we’re here to listen, to worship, to pray, to share, and to give. To honor GOD and one another. Just like Jesus asked us to. That we can feel good about. That we can know.
And we do as Jesus commands. We take up our cross and follow him. Even to find bread to feed the multitudes, out into the stormy seas, and among the sick and the desperate. And even among the Pharisees and the know-it-alls. Even to our own church with its saints and its sinners and its lovers and its fighters and all of its imperfect people. Even here, Jesus can show us the way home, to love and grace and peace. Even when we aren’t “feeling it”, we are given the reminder to ignore what the world has taught us and simply follow Jesus. That’s the first step and the only way we’ll begin to find GOD.