August 29, 2021 Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Mark 7: 1-8,14-15, 21-23.
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 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.) 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?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
With all that was going on in Israel at the time, it would seem that the Pharisees and scribes would likely have been better served by staying in Jerusalem, rather than traveling to Gennesaret to quarrel with Jesus. This is a journey of well over 100 miles, and would probably have been made on the back of a donkey or most likely, on foot.
Passover was not far off and the Roman and Jewish leaders were concerned with the potential for any disruption that might occur with thousands of pious Israelites pouring into Jerusalem for the holy festival. There was always the worry that a riot could happen with such a crush of people converging together; with so many Jewish citizens feeling frustrated living under Roman occupation. Yet, this group decided to gather around Jesus and his followers in Gennesaret, to observe his and their behavior; watching for any opportunity to accuse him or them of breaking the laws of the Torah. And it appears they did, in fact find an issue with which they took exception; some of the group of Jesus’ followers neglected to wash their hands before they ate. Now, this practice was not observed by all Jewish people and isn’t specifically required in the Law. In fact, ritual handwashing was required only of the priests in the temple. Some Jews did perform this symbolic act of ritual purity, but not all. So then why did the Pharisees call out Jesus for some of his followers not adhering to this practice? Obviously, it was simply one more opportunity they seized in order that they might find fault with his teaching and actions; as well as the actions of his disciples. Whether or not this was a valid complaint it certainly afforded Jesus the opportunity to use their accusation as a teaching moment. Now, this notion of becoming “defiled” refers specifically to a state of ritual impurity or uncleanness. And, for the Jews the striving for avoiding ritual impurity was an important part of maintaining a right relationship with God. Not so much the individual processes of keeping Kosher, but more about the desire to always behave in ways that showed one’s intention to maintain this righteous relationship with the Almighty.
So, the Pharisees’ grievance opened the door for Jesus to speak to this idea of “defilement” being more about the state on one’s heart versus the simple act of handwashing. To paraphrase, “it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the human heart that shows the true nature of a person”. As a pious Jewish man Jesus never intended for the disregard of the law of the Torah, but he did routinely insist that a person’s actions brought them in line with the will of God, much more so than steadfast adherence to regulations.
The evil things that come from within a person render that one “defiled”, Jesus taught. Note also that Jesus lists a number of those things that he calls “evil intentions”, and that these are among the actions that humans take that are contrary to the will of God. But what is unsaid is that there remain in our hearts those opposite actions, those behaviors that reflect the goodness humanity is capable of; this, in spite of our innate compulsion to misbehavior. The issue then becomes whether we are concerned less about the cleanliness of our hands, and more about the purity in our hearts. While we are forgiven the evil we do by the grace of God, it’s incumbent upon us, as it was for the Jews in Jesus’ time, to strive to maintain a right relationship with the Father. To be cautious to not allow those “evils” to come forth from our hearts.
Let’s take a look at this call to piety, as it is reflected in the letter of James, as was heard this morning. A bit of background on this writer, whom some scholars identify as James, the brother of Jesus. Whether that’s the case or if it were written at a later time and dedicated by its author to James, it’s not a letter we Lutherans grasp very tightly too. And that may be traced back to Martin Luther’s opinion of the letter; he called the book of James, an “epistle of straw”. He perceived that James’ letter placed an emphasis on works, rather than on the accepted theology that we are saved by faith alone, without the need for good deeds. In other words, we are saved through God’s grace by our faith in Christ, and there is nothing required from us to secure our salvation. But, in truth, I don’t think James is stating that we are required to perform works to be saved, but that it’s anticipated that we ought to behave in reaction to Christ’s teaching. He writes, “be doers of the word and not (just) hearers”.
Thus, this corresponds with Jesus’ response to the Pharisees; it’s the evil that comes from the human heart we must avoid, and James takes this a step further by reminding us that it is the good that resides within us that we ought to bring forth. We should be more concerned with giving a piece of fruit to a hungry person than worrying about whether or not we’ve first thoroughly washed it. Pure hearts, making us willing to be doers of the word versus ritual purity which does nothing other than relegate us to being hearers of the word. Clean hands versus pure actions toward others.
So, Jesus isn’t saying that the practice of handwashing should be disregarded, just that the reality of the world compels us to act in ways that display our yearning for a righteous relationship with God. To again paraphrase, “maybe we should worry less about whether we’ve gotten the dirt out from under our fingernails, and more about whether we’re doing anything that God commands us not to. Oh, and also, are we engaged in those behaviors that benefit others?” Are we “doers of the word?”
No matter the reason for the Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus, the fact remains that he did turn a great deal of accepted behavior upside-down. In fact, this upending of what most people felt was unchangeable tradition is the central theme of Jesus’ teaching. And it wasn’t intended to simply cease doing what was previously thought to be permanent, but to move into a new way of thinking; of ensuring that the desire to remain unchanged doesn’t result in stagnation. The world reminds us that we too must be willing to evolve, to accept that the notion of “we’ve always done it this way” may longer be the best way, the most effective course of action. Covid has forced the world in general, as well as for us within our walls here to adapt to deal with this new reality. We haven’t shared the peace through handshaking in a year-and-a-half; Communion elements have taken the form of individual cups that are most definitely not communal; separated seating and the dreaded masks further keep us from the Christian fellowship we most earnestly yearn for.
Yet, we continue as God’s people in this place; we gather for worship, we hear the Word, we share the bread and wine, and we make music to honor our God. And in doing so we are reminded that the evil that comes from the human heart is kept in check; we remember that as “doers of the word”, we’re not bound by simple tradition, we are set free by Christ to live lives of abundance. We know that our “works”, that is our worship, mission, and ministry, while not necessary, are the actions that bring us into the desired right relationship with God. Whether we’ve washed our hands or not.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God help us to recognize the evil intentions we harbor in our hearts. And guide us as we strive to keep them from emerging in ways that would demean ourselves or contribute to the suffering of others. Instead, help us to express the opposites of those behaviors that are contrary to your will. Comfort us as we struggle with the changes we are forced to endure, knowing that our connection to you is more important than whether we conform to “we’ve always done it this way”, or not. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who commands us to act in accordance with your will, and doesn’t care if we forget to wash our hands. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.