8/30/2015 Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Rituals, rules and traditions – which are important and which are not? Which ones help and which ones are done simply for the sake of keeping things the way they always have been? And what rules and traditions do we keep in order to find a “legitimate” way to gripe about the people who don’t keep them the way we do?
Sadly, traditions can take on the character of God’s absolute word. They can be inflexible and rigid. And, they can have nothing to do with preserving another person’s rights or value, or maintaining what is needful for the community or family, or even upholding some kind of inner order. Even when it comes to following household rules (such as when do we eat, what time do we go to bed, when is it appropriate for us to dress up and when to wear the torn tee shirt), we often have to decide what rule is negotiable and what is not. What is absolute and what can be tweaked? What needs to be preserved and what needs to change?
Today’s gospel lesson has a lot to do with the testing of traditions and choosing the bottom line, the basis on which the value of our rituals, rules and traditions are judged, especially when it comes to our relationship with God and others. On the surface, the presenting issue in the gospel may seem laughable. Some of the scribes and Pharisees notice that some of Jesus’ disciples sit down at the table and begin to eat without first washing their hands. Now, we know that many arguments between parent and children have involved the very same issue. Just ask children how many times they’ve been reprimanded and sent to the sink before a meal. And yet, this hardly seems like a critical matter. After all, a little dirt never killed anyone.
Yet, the issue of hand washing was not a minor matter to the Jewish people. It bore much more significance than meeting basic health and cleanliness needs. The washing of hands for the Jewish people was a mark of respect for God as it put mealtime under the sacred umbrella of the Torah. So, the washing of hands was, in a sense, a form of worship. AND, it was a law…it was a law that was to be strictly adhered to. It was a law that was devised not only to honor God, but also to insure a good relationship with God.
But can the washing of hands do that? Can any tradition, for that matter, help us establish a right relationship with God and gain salvation? NO! For salvation doesn’t come from our hands, dirty or clean. It comes from the hands of God. It comes from the cross-bound-nail marks on the hands of Jesus. So, salvation and the right relationship with God is God’s to give and God has chosen to give them to us as a free gift that we cannot earn.
When tradition and law, even religion itself, becomes a way in which human beings try to save themselves, Jesus stands firmly in opposition. We do not pay our bills to God, and we have no divine credit, only the Jesus of the cross can put us in a right relationship with God. And he has chosen to do so. It is in thanks that we come to worship; it is to be fed by Jesus that we come to the table; it is to maintain a relationship with God that we pray; and it is to remember the goodness of a self-sacrificing God that we adhere to traditions within the church.
What rituals and traditions we observe really doesn’t matter. What is truly important is what is in the heart. For what makes a person clean or unclean is not the keeping of traditions, rules and rituals, as whatever enters a person, through what he sees or hears or receives in any other way, is neutral. It just is… and it has no weighted value until it is translated by the mind and heart. That’s why two people can experience identical events and perceive them differently.
Some people always see a glass as half full. Others always see it as half empty. Some people see demons behind every tree. Others see only angels. Some people only remember the bad things people have done and judge them accordingly. Other people see others fully and accept them as children of God needing the same grace and mercy that they themselves need from God. All too often, our eyesight is faulty for we have limits to our vision. We cannot see the future and we cannot see what is in a person’s heart. So, we act by instinct, by what we have learned, within our limitations. But, God sees what we cannot and God acts with divine grace. The best we can do is to set our hearts and minds on God.
When we look into the hidden sanctuary of our hearts, where our wishes live, where our motives are born, what do we see? How limited is our vision? How do we live? Are the traditions, rules and rituals in our lives helpful to us or do they serve to keep us apart, poking away at God’s commandment to love others, which is to be the hallmark of our living? Remember, we cannot move closer to God until we move outside our comfort zone and stop trying to earn God’s favor by what we put into our lives. Nothing we do can earn what God has given. We move closer to God as we acknowledge that everything worthwhile is a gift, for it is then that we begin to live as thankful people who can share God’s blessings.
So look at the bottom line, my friends, and choose wisely those things which are negotiable and those which are not, those things which promote a relationship with God and others, and those things which keep us apart. May we hold firmly onto the goodness of God’s grace and salvation and love others as we, who are sinners, are loved by God. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.