The gospel reading for this Sunday is Mark7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Here is the message I'll be sharing with the people of God at Bethel Lutheran Church,, Portville, NY where it is my privilege to serve as pastor.
Jesus has been busy in Mark’s gospel. He has already fed the 5,000, walked on water, and healed the sick. Jesus was like a rock star. The people would not leave him alone. The verse preceding today’s reading says, “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak…” (Mark 6:56).
Some of the scribes and Pharisees had come from Jerusalem to observe Jesus. He and his disciples were in Gennesaret, in the Galilee. That is over 97 miles away! It was no easy trip to get there in Jesus’ day. Why did the scribes and Pharisees go to Galilee? The crowds followed Jesus everywhere because of his healing of the sick and feeding the hungry. What did his critics notice, “Your disciples don’t wash their hands right.” Can't they see the forest for the trees?
From our western 21st century perspective, it is hard to understand the pickiness of the scribes and Pharisees. The hand washing they were talking about was not to clean off dirt, but was a religious or ritual washing. The spirit of the faith of the Pharisees was to keep one’s heart focused on the Torah, the law, through these outward rituals. This reminded the Jewish people of their duty to God and neighbor in their everyday routine activities. The Pharisees were trying to apply the Levitical laws in Exodus concerning the cleanness of the priests to everyone. The movement of the Pharisees was originally a reform movement in Judaism!
Obeying God’s law was complicated. Most of the time things were spelled out very clearly, while at other times the law provided a moral principle, which was not so black and white, but was open to various interpretations. The scribes worried that with such flexibility with some of the laws, there was a chance of breaking all the laws. Their understanding was a variation on the slippery slope theory. If we break one law, we will break them all. They developed a system of thousands of rules to act as a protective fence around the law to keep it from being broken. These unwritten rules were the “tradition of the elders” we hear about in today’s gospel.
The scribes and Pharisees started out with noble intentions, but Jesus knew that even these could be corrupted. Their zeal for God and the law left their hearts out of the equation. Do we sometimes get distracted with the outer details of faith and church—missing the point of why we do what we do and who we are serving? We can go through the motions and follow the rituals to a T and never have a clue of what a personal relationship with God is. The rituals in themselves are not wrong, but anything that gets in the way of us developing a personal relationship with God is a problem.
Lutheranism in the United States has changed a lot since I was a child. In the 1960s and earlier, many Lutherans identified themselves by what they DID NOT do. When I, as a Catholic girl attended the Lutheran church with my girlfriend and her family, I was instructed, “We do not kneel,” and we do not eat fish on Fridays--or maybe some of us did. I noticed that Lutherans also did not make the sign of the cross after dipping their fingers in the baptismal font. Lutherans DID NOT do many other things because they were afraid of being too Roman Catholic. I cannot help but wonder what those same friends would think about today’s Lutherans. We now have weekly communion when at one time it was monthly or quarterly. These practices do not make us Christians or Lutherans, but if our faith is strengthened and renewed by them, then we should follow these rituals.
What is the crux of the matter Jesus is addressing? THE HUMAN HEART IS THE ISSUE! Jesus said, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (v. 8). Jesus is not condemning the traditions per se, but the condition of the scribes’ and Pharisees’ hearts. Jesus is also telling us that there are good and helpful faith practices like prayer and reading and studying the scripture that can help us grow in faith. However, if we do these things for heavenly brownie points, then they become obstacles, like the human traditions of the Pharisees. Our faith is all about relationships—relationship with God, relationship with each other, and relationship with the community.
Jesus was speaking with three distinct groups of people in this lesson. Initially, the conversation is with the scribes and Pharisees. Then it shifts to the crowd for two verses. In the last three verses, Jesus is no longer addressing the crowd. Verse 17, which is not in the lectionary reading, tells us, that he left the crowd and went into a house with the disciples. They did not understand what he was talking about, so Jesus was giving them some private instruction.
Jesus continues to pound away on the issue of the human heart. The rules and traditions are not the problem, people are…we are. It is not as clear in English as in Greek, but repeatedly throughout this passage, Jesus uses some form of the Greek word ἀνθρώπου (Mar 7:15 BGT), meaning person or humanity. The English word anthropology comes from this word. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus uses this word seven times. It appears three times in just this one verse. If translated literally, the verse would read, “…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out [from the person] are what defile [the person]” (v. 15). The word for tradition occurs only five times. Which do you think was the greater issue to Jesus—tradition or people’s hearts?
Maybe some of us remember the comic strip Pogo. Probably the most famous quotation from that comic is, “We have met the enemy and [it] is us.” That is Jesus’ point! The Pharisees and scribes were not the problem. The evil that is all around is not the problem. We can blame the devil and believe our world was better off when we were kids. Evil intentions do not dwell solely in the hearts of criminals and other notorious figures, but if Jesus’ words are to be believed, left to our own devices all kinds of garbage can come from us as well.
Have you sometimes wondered how people can do the things they do, even those that appear to be faithful church people? We have been shocked by those we thought we knew so well when they do something horrible. Sometimes it is enough to make our heads spin. When Jesus is giving a laundry list of evil intentions at the end of the reading, he is talking to his disciples. However, notice that Jesus is not cataloging actions because it is the condition of the human heart Jesus is addressing. We sometimes talk about head knowledge and heart knowledge, differentiating how we think from how we feel. However, Jesus’ disciples understood them as being the same thing. For the Jewish people, the heart was the center and source of physical, spiritual and mental life, of reasoning, questioning and thought (BDAG).
The list is ugly. Sexual sins are first in the inventory. In biblical and Jewish tradition, these were associated with idolatry, which is the primal sin against God. The middle of the list is all about community relationships-avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride —these are sins against people that can be harmful to relationships and community. The account culminates in “folly,” which according to one scholar is understood as “arrogant rejection of God” (Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, 205). Relationship with God, or the lack thereof, bookends this list. Does that surprise us? We may get tired of hearing this, but being a follower of Jesus is all about relationship—relationship with God, relationship with each other, and relationship with the community.
Jesus made it very clear that none of us is off the hook when it comes to sin. Rules, regulations, and formulas cannot save us from it. Because of what is inside, we are helpless when it comes to saving ourselves or anyone else. That is why God does the saving. Christ is our lifeline, our only hope to be free from the cesspool of sin. According to Luther, through baptism, Jesus has liberated us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Letting Jesus live His life through us by the power of the Holy Spirit means we are not bound to evil. We are free to love God, each other, and to do good in our community and beyond.
As we ponder what that good may look like, let us remember those who are victims of Hurricane Isaac. In the past, Bethel has made trips to Slidell, LA, an area that was heavily hit by the storm, again seven years after Katrina. Let us not forget these brothers and sisters of ours at a time like this. I have made several attempts to contact Pastor Barbara to see how they are, but have been unable to get through. We may be called on again to offer our assistance in helping our friends. As you may know, ELCA Disaster Response teams are the first to go in to help and the last to leave. They are already on the ground in the Gulf Coast. We may want to consider taking up a special collection for this purpose. Let us be supportive with our prayers and our giving, living out and reflecting the work of the grace of God in our hearts. Amen.