Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Commentary

Comments and Observations

After observing the Nazis in action for a while, the German philosopher and writer Heinrich Heine once said that you can count on it: wherever they burn books, they will sooner or later burn people.

Maybe a similar or related observation could be made from what we read in Mark 7: wherever people make serving God all about keeping rules, sooner or later all of life becomes about drawing lines to determine who’s in and who’s out (and the number of people on the outs will always be a lot huger than those who are allegedly “in”).  And that’s when religious folks become much more interested in telling people they will burn in hell than in proclaiming to them a gracious God who has already given everything to keep just that from happening.

All along in the Bible the Law of God was meant to be a guide for life for those who were already in love with God on account of their knowing that God had saved them by his grace.  Even in the Old Testament God did not give the Law to his people while they were still slaves in Egypt, thereby saying to them, “Hear, O Israel: when you collectively have achieved a sufficient level of obedience to these laws, statutes, and precepts I now lay before you, then I may consider bringing you out of your house of bondage.  So work hard, be good for goodness’ sake, and I will get back in touch with you when I think you’ve earned a bit of my attention.   That is all.  Thank you.”

No, the great exodus from Egypt came first.  And even prior to that God had graciously fulfilled a part of his promise to Abraham by making Abraham’s descendants a mighty nation (a group of people large enough to make even the Pharaoh nervous).  The giving of the Law came after the people had seen God’s mighty acts and outstretched arm.  As such, it was meant to be a guide for living for people already transformed on the inside by having seen and savored the grace of God.

That’s the way it always needs to be because listen: every time the Law becomes a way to curry divine favor, earn salvation, or even as a way to retain one’s saved status, it sooner or later leads people away from a true adoration of God even as it rather quickly becomes a bludgeon in the hands of the “Holier-Than-Thou” crowd.   As Mark 7 shows us, when keeping the rules becomes the main thing that life is all about, that focus eventually leads people to find clever ways to keep only the letter of the law, killing its spirit.

In the verses of Mark 7 that the Lectionary skips—but that I’d recommend we preachers retain when preaching on this passage—Jesus makes it clear that while there is nothing wrong with God’s Law per se, the problem was that the Pharisees and others had become really adept at cooking up schemes within their hearts to get around the more arduous demands of that Law—they’d scrub the surface of their lives the same way they scrubbed the outside of a cup but all along they’d conveniently ignore what was on the inside.   And anyway we already know that in Jesus’ mind, the greatest commandment of them all—the one that is supposed to weave through and inform one’s attitude toward every other command you could ever name—is love.  But it’s certainly not loving to find ways to get around the command to honor one’s parents and it’s definitely not loving to condemn people to hell just because they maybe forgot to wash their hands before popping a fig in their mouths while strolling through the marketplace.

But that’s what happens when you have convinced yourself God grades on the curve.  Sooner or later you become so desperate to make yourself look good that you find a convenient way of doing that is by making others look bad.  “I may not be perfect but God has to like me a whole lot better than old Frank over there—what a shoddy would-be believer he is!”

The point is that laws become more important than people.  But in our hearts of hearts what God wants to see is nothing but love: love for the God who is so gracious to us in the first place, and then love for all other people as we seek to give to others the same wonderful grace God has given to us.   Grace begets grace.   But legalism just begets strictness and meanness.

Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address

How do we manage to turn the love and grace of God, which is good news, into the hatred and strictness of God, which is bad news?  How does faith in a living and loving God transform into “religion” in the worst sense of the word?    Somewhere Lewis Smedes once wrote that a living relationship with God is a good thing but religion will whop you upside the head every time with long tirades about how bad a person you are, how you don’t live up to this or that expectation, and how basically all of life comes down to just one thing: proving that you’re good enough and worthy enough to be accepted (and the incessant worry that you are never quite there yet).

That’s what religion is, and Smedes is right: it’s a far cry from the gospel.  But how does it happen that we let the gospel get eclipsed by religion?   Why is it that for altogether too many people also yet today, being right, being holier than the next person, becomes a far more important benchmark of faith than being loving and Christ-like?

Religion makes moral cops out of all of us.

Faith, on the other hand, understands the love of God and the grace that saves.  This leads to a humble awareness that were it not for the mercy of God, each one of us would be more than doomed and so what remains is for us to talk about this grace of God, making it wonderfully available to all whom we meet.

True enough.  But I still go back to the question: what makes people who know the gospel pretty well nevertheless turn into moral cops after all?  My own Calvinist/Reformed tradition is a particularly curious case in point.  Few people know better how utterly depraved and lost they are in sin than do people whose theological vantage point descended from John Calvin.  We know we are utterly dependent on the amazing grace of God that saved wretches like us.   And yet some in this same tradition have also become stern moralists; disapproving folks who often scowl at the hapless sinners around them.

The oft-times sardonic Dutch Reformed novelist Peter DeVries captured this well when he depicted several of his relatives talking in the parlor.  Each man tried to outdo the others in consigning even the best of his spiritual works to the dustbin under the heading of “All our works are but as filthy rags before God.”   This prompted DeVries to muse, “This being what we thought of virtue, you can imagine what we thought of vice.”

So what accounts for this?  Maybe part of the answer is that it’s always easier to fixate on what we can see with our eyes than it is to focus on what is invisible.  Grace and mercy and love: these are all fine things to sing about in church on a Sunday morning but they can also become intangible.  Ah, but volunteering for the homeless shelter, refusing to touch a drop of alcohol, never going to a store on Sunday: these kinds of religious practices can be seen, toted up, tallied, pointed to as proof of one’s devotion.  Just to look at a person’s exterior appearance you can’t know for sure whether he or she is saved by grace or not and so wondering about that is not very interesting.  But if we see this person have a beer, eat a sandwich with unwashed hands, get a pizza delivered on a Sunday evening: well, NOW we know who’s who and so that’s what we focus on.

Of course, it’s not as though leading a devoted life of faith does not also issue in certain characteristic behaviors.  Jesus, after all, apparently saw no contradiction between leading a life full of grace and yet saying things like, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  The Law does have a role to play in the life of the already saved.   But it’s all gravy, it’s all joy, it’s all delight.   Because then “living for Jesus” issues forth from hearts that dance to the tune of grace instead of from hearts that brood long and hard over failures and infractions of the rules.

To paraphrase Jesus in Mark 7: what ruins a person’s life is not what he eats or drinks but what issues forth from hearts full of fear, bitterness, and scorn.  Those are the kinds of hearts that lead people to wag bony fingers in the faces of others.  Those are the kinds of hearts that lead to pinched expressions on condemning faces.  Because as Jesus said, those are the hearts that try so hard to get close to God through moral striving and human achievement that they end up being very far from God after all.  Oh, and those same people don’t have too many friends on earth, either.

If it weren’t so tragic, it would count as one of life’s richest ironies.

Textual Points

The Lectionary would have us skip Mark 7:17 and that’s too bad because that little verse contains a wonderful little piece of irony.  Jesus has just been speaking pretty plainly about why he refuses to be concerned with rules about what to eat or how to eat it because he knows that the main problem with religious people is not what they bring into their bodies but the unhappy, judgmental stuff they bring out of hearts that are filled with bitterness and a nitpicking attitude.  Again, Jesus was talking as plain as day.  Yet in verse 17 the disciples asked Jesus what he had meant by this “parable” he had just told.  But the question we need to ask is, “What parable!?”  Jesus had not told a parable.  He had not made a metaphor.  He had not invoked a simile.   Yet what Jesus was saying about the proper focus of the life of faith was so revolutionary, so revelatory, to the disciples (and to the crowds) that to their minds they just assumed he must have been speaking metaphorically.  He wasn’t.  Therein lies the key lesson of this passage!

Illustration Idea

A friend of mine recently showed me a very funny—albeit vaguely sacrilegious!—YouTube clip of some old 1960s movie about Jesus that had been dubbed so as to put different words in Jesus’ mouth.  You can view it here (and may have to crank your volume as it’s soft):

In the clip Jesus goes up to each disciple in turn to berate him for some naughty thing he had said, done, or thought recently.  Having delivered this bad news to the disciples, Jesus then turns to a crowd and tells them that he had come to earth for just one purpose: to tell them they were sinners and there was no hope.  “That’s it” is how Jesus grimly concludes this anti-Sermon on the Mount!

The people who dubbed that clip were not merely being cheeky.  They rightly have touched on a sad truth: this is exactly how Jesus comes off in a lot of churches today.  Watch any number of sermons on TV or read some of the sermons you can find online and you would indeed tumble to the conclusion that what Jesus is mostly all about—and so what being a latter-day follower of Jesus is all about also yet today—is going around to wag a bony finger in the faces of all those sinners out there who just don’t have the sense to lead the moral lives that we in the church lead.


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