Washing Up and Washing Out
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15
This morning's gospel lesson may appear (on the surface) to be merely a meal-time dispute between Jesus and some overzealous Pharisees. If that were, in fact, the only issue the gospel story raises then it wouldn't have much relevance for Christians. After all, we don't have much concern with Jewish dietary laws. But, Jesus' exchange with these Pharisees has to do with far more than food and meal-time etiquette. As a matter of fact, there is quite a lot of important stuff going on in the conversation Jesus has with these Pharisees.
I imagine all of us here this morning have heard the old adage "Cleanliness is next to Godliness."
During my college years, I was helping out one evening at a church's Vacation Bible School. That evening's craft project had resulted in some very messy children. I was observing the children getting picked up by their parents. As one particularly messy child opened the car door, I heard his mother exclaim, "Didn't they teach you that the bible says "Cleanliness is next to godliness?" (A quick aside here: that quote doesn't come from the bible.) Now, observing the parent's obvious distress, I wisely determined that any attempts on my part at that moment to dispel their biblical ignorance would not have been welcomed. I kept my distance and kept my mouth shut. After all, the craft project wasn't my idea. Thank goodness.
I share that little story with you, however, to demonstrate how easy it is for us to embellish and reshape scripture so that we can influence, and even control, the behavior of others. In truth, in the early books of the bible, cleanliness is often linked with the idea of holiness: that which is clean is set apart (or consecrated) for God. In Leviticus, the people of Israel "are instructed to distinguish between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean."[i] To speak of "cleanliness" was, quite often, to speak of "holiness." And it’s a very small leap from Leviticus to our contemporary premise that "cleanliness is next to godliness," an adage which, when infused with the weight of God's authoritative Word can serve a parent quite well.
Jesus, too, has to address this issue when he encounters the Pharisees in this morning's gospel lesson. It is important, however, to have a little bit of historical background for what's going on here.
Most bible scholars today believe that the early books of the Old Testament, or Hebrew, scripture did not take final, written form until after the 4th century B.C.E. Somewhere around 586 B.C.E. the Jews in the southern tribes of Israel were overrun by the nation of Babylon. The city of Jerusalem was ransacked, the temple razed to ruins, and most of Israel's brightest and best were hauled away to Babylon. Now, that devastating disaster hadn't come without warning. For quite sometime, prophets had been warning the people that their half-hearted practice of religion and their rampant secularism and disregard for the needy was going to get them into a lot of trouble. And, lo and behold, it turned out the prophets were right.
Now, once they got to Babylon, the people had plenty of time to think about what had happened, to think about the warnings the prophets had given; to think about where they'd gone wrong. And during those years in Babylon (and shortly thereafter) is when most bible scholars believe those first few books of Old Testament scripture took organized written form. And it was a form which placed a very strong emphasis on Jewish separatism or segregation. Biblical books like Ezra and Nehemiah make crystal clear that being forcibly removed from their homeland AND having their Temple thoroughly destroyed were a real wake-up call for the people. They didn't want to make the same mistake twice. So, from that point forward, the Jewish religious leaders placed renewed emphasis on the distinctiveness of the Jewish faith. Their God wasn't just one among many. He was the one and only. And they weren't just any people. They were his people. He had called and chosen them; they were holy people; meaning they were set apart for God and God’s purposes. He had entered into a distinctive relationship with them. And, he had called them to a lifestyle markedly different from the people and cultures around them, a lifestyle that would clearly reveal who they were and whose they were.
But here's where things got tricky. Over time, some of the religious leaders began to focus more on the lifestyle than they did on the relationship. They began to put the cart before the horse, so to speak. Instead of recognizing that their distinctive relationship with God would cause them to, naturally, behave in distinctive ways; they began to focus on the day-to-day details that made up that distinctive lifestyle. Now, the Pharisees were a particular group of Jewish religious leaders who sought to interpret Jewish commandments in ways that made practical sense for the "average Joe." Some did this well. But for others it became an obsession, a compulsion, an intellectual exercise. They wanted the people to behave themselves, so they showered them with rules and regulations. They embellished, reinterpreted and supplemented the commands God had given. They went to such efforts to eliminate any possible ambiguity that, in reality, they only served to muddy the waters. The average Joe couldn't even keep track of all those rules… yet alone adhere to them all. Those particular Pharisees had become so concerned with the letter of the law that they smothered the spirit of it. And worse yet, it became a way for them to, not only influence, but even control those "average Joe's" who would have, at that point in time, been illiterate and, therefore, utterly at their mercy.
Jesus goes on the offensive with the Pharisees in this morning's gospel passage. He publicly shames and discredits them. But it's not because Jesus wants to discredit the distinctiveness of the Jewish faith. Rather, it’s because Jesus wants to uphold the distinctiveness of the Jewish faith. Because, remember, what's distinctive about the Jewish faith is their relationship with God. It’s a distinctiveness based not on adherence to a set of rules; rather, it's a distinctiveness based on a unique and intimate relationship with God.
Jesus' controversy with the Pharisees begins over the issue of eating with unclean hands. The Pharisees question Jesus because they have observed his disciples eating with hands that have not been ritually cleansed. Their question is not so much a question as it is a challenge to Jesus' authority. It is their attempt to discredit Jesus. After all, the behavior of students reflects upon their teacher and Jesus, apparently, has done a poor job of teaching these disciples what it means to be distinctively Jewish. That's what they think at least.
Jesus responds to them by quoting one of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah. And, it is truly ironic because, keep in mind, it was the Pharisees' recollection of the prophets' stern warnings for obedience that had inspired their lengthy embellishments and additions to the law. And yet, they are no closer to God now by their legalism than their disobedient ancestors had been by their liberalism. An important lesson that applies to a myriad of contexts.
Jesus confronts these Pharisees with the words of the prophet Isaiah when he says, "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." In other words, Jesus says, "it's not about the eloquent words you say or how well you wash up before dinner; it's about your heart." Isaiah wasn't the only prophet to speak the message. Jeremiah says much the same thing. In Jeremiah, chapter 31, the prophet relays God's message to the people when he says…
The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors... But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…[and] they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest...
These Pharisees had racked up all kinds of rules and regulations to insure that the people would be clean and holy and "right with God." They were motivated by the horror of that distant memory of Babylon (after all, fear, guilt and regret are very powerful motivators). They wanted some kind of magic bullet to guarantee that God would never again punish them as he had during their Babylon days; those laws were like an insurance policy to guarantee they wouldn’t lose what was dear to them. But they had it all backwards. What God wanted wasn’t robotic allegiance to rules; what God wanted was their hearts, their love and their loyalty. God wanted them to understand that all of the instruction and guidance he had ever given them was for the purpose of building up their relationships with him and with one another. God wanted their hearts. All those rules – as Jesus was so fond of pointing out – really boiled down to two things: love God and love people.
So, what does this morning's scripture mean for us as 21st century Christians? After all, we don't have food laws. And we don't have Pharisees to clutter our minds with a bunch of extra rules. But I’m afraid that we do – still today – often try to reduce religion to a particular set of rules and regulations. Now, that’s not to imply that Christianity is devoid of ethics or morals. But it is to say that those ethics and morals – those rules we follow – are to be the natural fruit of our relationship with God through Christ. Our words, actions and ideals ought to spring from a changed heart.
In 1903 the Russian czar noticed a sentry posted for no apparent reason on the Kremlin grounds. Upon inquiry, he discovered that in 1776 Catherine the Great had found on that very spot the first flower of spring. "Post a sentry here," she'd commanded, "so that no one tramples that flower under foot!" And there stood a sentry year after year, going through motions that no longer served any purpose.[ii]
I love that story because the posting of that sentry began with a true and sincere sense of love and tenderness toward that delicate spring flower; but over time it evolved into senseless rote action. That can easily happen in organized religion. Yet, over and over again, Jesus teaches and demonstrates that discipleship is truly and finally about those things that help us grow in love for God and for others. Any action in which we engage ought to be pointed toward that goal: growing in love toward God and neighbor and if a rule or a practice isn’t helping us grow in love of God and neighbor, then it has outlived its usefulness and is as meaningless as a sentry guarding barren ground.
Friends: we aren’t made more holy simply by following rules or going through the motions. There are no magic bullets in religion because (as I so often say), Christianity isn’t a belief system; it is a relational system. It is about an honest and heart-felt desire and effort to engage in those practices and habits, and adhere to principles, that truly help us grow in love and service through relationships with God and community.
[i] See Leviticus 10:10
[ii] See https://bible.org/illustration/some-traditions-die-hard
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