We’re going to continue our discussion around rules. Sometimes it's easy for us to know the rules. And sometimes, even depending on our context, it can be difficult for us to know the rules. Sometimes we may know the rule, but we may be confused by it. Sometimes, there are unspoken rules - those rules that “everybody knows” and that we assume people will follow. Some of these rules, in particular, are common in church.
So, our story today is about rules. And about what is really important. On the surface, it may seem about keeping rules that were Jewish versus Christian. Yet, we need to remember that Jesus was Jewish, so he would have observed the various Jewish laws. That’s not really what this story is about. Let’s listen to it and see if we can figure out what Jesus is really saying. I invite you to follow along in the pew Bible.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 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.) 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?” 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;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” --Mark 7:1-23 (NRSV)
The story opens with the appearance of the Pharisees and some scribes who have come into the countryside from Jerusalem to see Jesus. We often have a pretty bad attitude towards the Pharisees, don’t we? That their intent is always to trip up Jesus, to challenge him. This is the way they are presented in some of the other gospels. But, here, in Mark, it’s a little different. If you notice the text carefully, there is nothing that is written about their intent. In fact, it would have been customary and usual for them to come and ask questions. Jesus was viewed as a rabbi, a teacher with followers who was responsible for his disciples. So, assuming that Jesus, as a rabbi, was responsible for his disciples, the Pharisees would have come to Jesus to ask him about the behavior of his followers. There is nothing here to show a devious intent on their part.
Note the parenthetical portion in verses 3 and 4. “For the Pharisees...do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders…” This phrase - the “tradition of the elders” - was a reference to all of the interpretations, the rules, and the procedures that had grown up around the written law, or the Torah. The traditions of the elders were oral commentary on this written law, applying it to real life situations. You might say that the traditions of the elders were like the sermons of our day. Verbal commentary on the written law.
The Pharisees were actually viewed as the “good guys” of Judaism of their day because they wanted to help people live out the written law. We think of them as “bad” because of what seems to be an antagonistic position toward Jesus. Yet, they believed that the Torah was a gift from God (as we do scripture) and that the oral traditions that had been passed down for generations were also gifts from God, but of equal value. Their question to Jesus - "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" - is their attempt to understand if this Rabbi Jesus shares their views...whether or not Jesus is as concerned as they are for ceremonial purity and for the sacredness of their vows, or their commitment, to the oral traditions. The question is pretty straight forward and seemingly with no devious intent.
It’s Jesus’ response that is surprising. Because he immediately goes into an antagonistic mode. “You hypocrites!” he calls them. He then proceeds to quote from Isaiah, essentially "throwing the book" at them and arguing that they confuse the interpretation of the law with the law itself.
Except, there’s a problem. Because laws don’t interpret themselves. It’s why today we have courts in our country. To interpret our laws. It’s why we have hundreds (if not thousands) of commentaries written on Scripture. To better understand or try to understand what the Bible is saying to us.
Take the fourth commandment, for example. “Honor your mother and father.” Now we probably get pretty easily what it means to honor someone. But who is your mother? Is it your biological mother? Or your adoptive mother? Your stepmother? Perhaps an aunt who was like a mother to you? Maybe a grandmother? Who decides the meaning of “mother?” Or, likewise, “father?”
Can you put yourself into the position of the Pharisees? They’re simply trying to observe the law in the fullest sense.
Jesus’ response to their question really isn't about the ritual of being clean or unclean. Please note that Jesus isn’t saying that cleanliness or ritual cleanliness isn’t important. Or that spreading germs is a good idea. This is more about how we understand the law. More specifically, it’s about how we obey the law. Whether we follow the spirit of the law or the letter of the law, which is what Jesus condemns here. Such as keeping keeping the Sabbath, but then cheating people in the marketplace day after day. Or offering sacrifices in the temple, then dealing unjustly or mistreating those who are vulnerable: slaves, foreigners, widows, or orphans.
What defiles us - what makes us unclean - is not the stuff outside of us. What makes us unclean is what comes from our heart. Those thoughts, words, and deeds that create barriers in our relationships--with each other, with God. Those things we struggle with. Sexual sin. Theft. Murder. Adultery. Greed. Evil action. Deceit and lying. Unrestrained immorality. Envy. Insults. Arrogance. Foolishness. There is nothing on this list we can deny. We, who are bearers of God’s image, but who are also ungodly monsters that lurk underneath. Saint and sinner that we are. Wheat and chaff. Sheep and goats. This back and forth of ourselves that we struggle with. “Daily,” as Paul writes. That we ultimately cannot change. At least, not by ourselves.
It’s why we confess our sins regularly in worship. Why we approach the Lord’s Supper each week. That we might know and receive God’s forgiveness. That, in Christ, our relationship to God might be restored. And that we might continue to be transformed. So that our hearts - the source of evil - might be changed. Luther writes that our new life is alien to us. That it’s outside the old “us.” That it’s not a matter of Jesus coming and cleaning us out to use our old shell. But that Jesus comes to kill the old. To make a new creation. To take us away from finding our identity in the law and instead finding it in Christ. Because that is the only “us” where we find freedom and a future. Where we find hope!
But, this isn’t the end of it. Because, then, this same Jesus sends us back out. We, who have become freed in Christ, now are servants to all. To the clean and the unclean. To the wheat and the chaff. To the sheep and the goats. Because our cleanliness, once again, doesn’t not come from external things. Our cleanliness comes solely through the transforming grace of God.
"Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us." May this be our continuous prayer. Amen.
Preached February 16, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Mark 7:1-23; Isaiah 1:11-17, Psalm 50:7-23