This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, Aug. 30 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The text was Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23.
How many of us have had this experience as we have prepared a meal? You have your vegetables all ready and they look fabulous. You got an especially great deal on them. Let's say you are ready to chop up a green pepper. You cut the pepper in half. When you see the inside, it's all nasty and moldy. It was so beautiful on the outside and you could just imagine the wonderful flavor it would add. However, the pepper was not what it appeared to be. This example illustrates the gist of what Jesus is talking about in today's gospel reading.
Jesus was in Galilee with his disciples when his frequent opponents the scribes and Pharisees who traveled from Jerusalem, arrive on the scene. We tend to have a very negative impression of the Pharisees. They often seem hung up on such minutiae. But, believe it or not, they were the progressive, reform movement of Judaism in their time. As such, they wanted to help ordinary people become more observant of the written and oral law as a way of affirming their Jewish identity. They believed in the priesthood of all God's people.
The Jewish people were living in their homeland which was occupied by the Romans. In the diversity of the Mediterranean world, keeping the Jewish faith and traditions alive, keeping their identity alive was a critical problem. The Pharisees actual believed in a priesthood of all believers. Because of this, they insisted that some of the laws required of the priests, should be required of all God's people. Ritual washing of hands, food and cooking utensils expressed this belief. Most Pharisees did not see these observances as replacing the moral law, but they were considered important religious disciplines.
One way to understand the power of the Jewish distinction between clean and unclean things is to draw a parallel with authoritarian organizations, where people avoid all contact with a person who is under suspicion or who has been fired, for example, so as not to endanger their own position. There is a power in uncleanness or evil that can cause guilt by association.
But then there is Jesus who is constantly turning everything upside down. Especially in Mark's gospel, Jesus is portrayed as constantly violating religious observances in favor of doing ministry with the needy. The seeming violations are extensive. Jesus heals on the sabbath, touches a leper and a dead child, eats with tax collectors and other notorious sinners, just to name a few of the "violations" Jesus commits. Jesus' behavior says, "Beware when religious observances get in the way of fulfilling the intent of the law, which is love of God and neighbor.
Jesus does not condemn the practices of ritual cleansing or observing the sabbath. They are good traditions which are part of a healthy life and way to honor God. The problem arises when these practices become barriers to reaching out to others with the love, justice and mercy of God and when human traditions are substituted for God's commandments.
Jesus calls a spade a spade. Although it seemed like the problem the Pharisees and scribes had against Jesus' disciples was that they did not ceremonially wash their hands, the real issue is the tradition and authority behind that practice. Just who does Jesus think he is?
We know the answer to that--he is the Son of God, God incarnate--that's who he is. Because of that, he calls it as he sees it.
In scripture, the heart is not simply that which pumps blood throughout our body and it is not the center of emotions. It is a metaphor for a person's innermost core or spiritual center. The heart is the total person, one's whole being or self.
Jesus sees inconsistency in the lives of the Pharisees and scribes. On the outside, all is well. They are doing everything just so, but what about that pesky place, the heart? Quoting Isaiah, Jesus says, "'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines'" (vv. 6-7). Jesus is calling for congruence in our inner and outer lives, not just lip service.
The idea that what comes out is what defiles a person is a bit hard to get a hold of. If we ingest something that isn't good for us, like poison, our bodies will be defiled and harmed. What Jesus means is that it it does not affect our hearts. No food can defile because it only enters the stomach and has no effect on the heart, the center of thinking and willing that determines a person's true character. Jesus uses an extensive list of vices to demonstrate the inner corruption of the heart. These vices include those in the Ten Commandments, showing that Jesus continued to uphold the commandment of God which his opponents undermined.
Jesus always seems to be showing people that what is on the outside is not as important as what is on the inside. He makes friends with people like the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery--those whom proper society would brush aside. Yet, it was these whose hearts were open to Jesus. Jesus calls out the scribes and Pharisees because they present themselves as respected members of society. But Jesus knows what is inside of them and demonstrates how their inner and outer lives do not match up.
How do we fare with the question, "How do our inner lives line up with our outer lives? Jesus said, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand" v. 14. Jesus' call to listen and understand suggests that the meaning is not obvious or on the surface. What Jesus wants us to understand is that the condition of our hearts, the center of our wills, where decisions are made about one's neighbors, is at the core of Jesus' teaching. Jesus declares that all people are defiled, not by what they eat and drink, but by what they will and say and do. Jesus warns that sin comes from within and leads to destructive deeds, such as the list Jesus gives in this passage. Jesus' words were aimed at the structure of the Pharisaic religion--how holiness and sin were defined, how God's word regulates the life of God's people. These words of Jesus are for us as well.
What does this mean for us as a church? Churches can easily sacrifice faith to save traditions, even when we know that the tradition was established by people and not God. We may not think that we are guilty of that, but when we think or say, "We've never done it that way before," we see evidence of our own affection for tradition. Sometimes it can be difficult to understand the difference between God's commands (which Jesus does not negate) and human dictates.
As individuals and as a church, the question that drove the Pharisees and that motivates some Christians today is important--in a religiously diverse culture, how does one maintain Christian identity and integrity? Our response should echo that of our Lord's when he was asked what the greatest command of all was. His response was to love God and our neighbor. That is the essence of God's law.
The perspective presented by Mark was not a contrast of scripture versus tradition, but the word of God versus human tradition. The issue was whether the authoritative word was presented by the Jewish oral tradition or by the person and teaching of Jesus as God's definitive word.
The struggle we see in this passage from Mark is a struggle inside each human being who is serious about faith. We struggle with self-righteousness. There is something inside us that isn't bothered when we are included and others excluded. We like being the insiders. We look for ways of distinguishing ourselves from the outsiders. It can be easy to fall into a false sense of superiority, which is fed by the exclusion of others. Remember, Martin Luther said we are simultaneously saints and sinners--a mixed bag.
What are the earmarks that proclaim the authenticity of God's people today? God wants us to have pure hearts and a diet of justice and love. Then we will not only try to do the right things, we will do them because the deeds are a reflection of the life of Christ in us. Our actions will reflect who and whose we are. The cleanness will not be one of merely looking good on the outside, but will be because of the cleanness inside.
Are we allowing God's grace to work deep inside us? Are we willing to be changed from the inside out? Jesus is not simply patching up the old in order to make it more serviceable. Jesus is making something entirely new. May we long for God to turn our worlds upside down and to make us new. May our lives be so impacted by God's love and power, that our families, friends, neighbors and world will see such a profound difference in us, that their hearts will open up to the great changer of hearts, the Lord Jesus Christ.
M. Eugene Boring, The New Testament Library: Mark, a Commentary
Cynthia M. Campbell, christiancentury.org/article/2006-08/id-check
Beverly Gaventa, A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year B
David Lose, davidlose.net/2015/08/pentecost-14-b-tradition/
John Ortberg, christiancentury.org/article/2003-08/pharisees-are-us
Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume VIII, Matthew, Mark
Dennis Sanders, christiancentury.org/article/2015-07/august-30-22nd-sunday-ordinarytime
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com/brian/mark7x1.htm