Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 2, 2018
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Commentary
Digging Into the Text:
Once again the RCL takes a longer, complicated text and tries to make it briefer and simpler with some judicious chopping and trimming. Sometimes this move toward simplicity actually makes the preacher’s task more difficult, even as it raises the suspicions of the more knowledgeable members of the congregation. That may be the case here, and preachers should consider whether reading the entire passage might benefit both them and the congregation. I will be treating it as a unified reading.
The practice of washing your hands before eating doesn’t strike us as odd or overly scrupulous today. Your Mom told you that, and nearly every public bathroom has a sign reminding at least the employees to do so. It’s a matter of good hygiene to get rid of the germs.
The first thing our listeners need to know is that this has nothing whatsoever to do with germs and good hygiene. It’s about religious hygiene. It’s a symbolic religious practice. The Law of Moses devoted a great deal of attention to the matter of ritual purity. Lots of things, from normal bodily fluids to sex, from touching a dead body to mixing milk and meat could make one ritually unclean and therefore barred from temple worship.
It’s important to note that the state of uncleanness was not the same as sinfulness. One could be ritually unclean just in the normal course of life, and the prescription for it was not repentance, but ritual cleansing. This confrontation of Jesus with the Pharisees from Jerusalem is not really about the whole issue of ritual purity, it’s about how the Pharisees used these laws to construct a system of ritual piety.
Here, Mark steps back from telling the story to do some explaining to the folks in Rome for whom the gospel was written. They knew little or nothing about Jewish interpretations of the Mosaic law. Mark’s explanation is essentially accurate, though a bit exaggerated. “All the Jews” almost certainly did not wash before eating, but the Pharisees did.
Mark also correctly points out that this was the “tradition of the elders,” and was not actually stipulated in the Law of Moses. The Mosaic law had nothing to say about ordinary people washing their hands before eating bread. The law did specify that priests needed to wash before performing sacrifices at the altar. Again, the laws of ritual purity had to do with teaching the people about the holiness of God.
But for the scribes and Pharisees, that was not enough. There was a whole long tradition among Jewish Rabbis that amplified the commandment to include everyone. If it’s good for priests, why wouldn’t it be good for ordinary people. Isn’t every piece of bread a holy offering to God? Isn’t it a good thing to bring priestly practice into everyday life? So they ask, “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before eating their bread?”
Jesus quotation from Isaiah in reply goes right the heart of the matter. People’s words or even their actions may appear to honor God, but their hearts may be steeped in pride and sin. That’s the essence of hypocrisy. And, Isaiah adds, apropos to Jesus’ situation, the laws they promote in order to demonstrate their holiness aren’t even from God. Jesus then delivers the punch line, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
Here we come to the first lectionary shortcut. It makes some sense in that it seems to introduce another topic into the conversation, but what it really sharpens Jesus point by giving another example of the same sort of manipulation of the law through human traditions.
The word corban means the declaration that something is dedicated as an offering to God. Through some crafty juxtaposition of this law with others, the scribes ((the experts in Mosaic law who made rulings on religious practice) had figured out a way to circumvent other obligations of God’s law, like honoring your parents.
So, if a Jew was afraid of losing too much by having to care for parents in old age, he could declare some assets as Corban, dedicated to God, even though he has no intention of offering the assets to God either.
In today’s world, a person might declare that their entire life savings is dedicated to some mission endeavor in order to avoid having to pay for a destitute parent’s nursing care, then afterward use it for themselves. It was pious thievery rather than real religious zeal. Jesus says they are actually nullifying the law rather than honoring it. And, he adds, “you do many things like that.”
Essentially, Jesus is attacking forms of outward piety and good works that are actually self-serving and have nothing to do with honoring God. Generous public gifts may also serve as timely and money-saving tax write-offs. Politicians who make a point of their love for Jesus may also find that it helps them in the polls. A priest of minister may use their dedication to God, and the ecclesiastical authority of their office to groom young men and women for sexual exploitation. One can be scrupulous about bowing in prayer before meals in a public place as a good Christian practice, or to make a show of one’s piety. As Jesus said it’s a matter of where the heart is.
Moving back into the RCL text, Jesus now speaks to the crowd that has gathered. “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” It’s important to note that even though Jesus says that nothing outside can defile, he is talking about food. There are lots of things from “outside” us that can defile us. Pornography, reading or watching deeply violent material, or political or social ideology may come from outside, but they tend to stick and will eventually corrupt the heart.
Verses 17- 19 are omitted in the RCL text, but it may be an important section for congregations to hear. As is often the case, Jesus’ words confound the disciples, and we are just as likely to misunderstand. It’s no wonder that this was a new concept for them. They had been brought up to observe the minutiae of the law, but had not been taught its true purpose.
In the biblical worldview, the heart is the control center of the mind and will. It’s the heart that breeds human perversity, not outward things like food and drink. Jesus is making a strong distinction between the religion of the heart and a purely outward religion of the legal code. It’s not that Jesus was rejecting the law, but that he was noting its limits. It cannot change the orientation of the heart.
In verse 19 Mark makes another interpretive comment on the story, one is challenged by some commentators. Clearly, Mark wants to relate this saying of Jesus to the later Christian struggle over the abrogation of kosher food laws that was perhaps still going on in Rome. But it’s not clear how Mark, the author, takes the leap from this story to Jesus “declaring all foods clean.” Though one can see how Jesus’ words are related to the issue, Jesus nowhere explicitly abrogates the laws concerning clean and unclean food. Nor do Peter and Paul, who were at the center of the controversy in the early church, anywhere refer to Jesu own words.
Preaching the Text
- As noted above, it may be more helpful to have the entire text read than the edited version of the RCL. Beside the reasons mentioned above, it also provides an opportunity for some helpful teaching. Many people in our congregations do not have a very nuanced view of the gospels. They may see them merely as mini-biographies of Christ. They may also wonder why we need four of them.
Mark’s interpretive comments in this text force the reader to look at the gospel text both for the message itself, and the purpose of the author in framing it as he does. Each gospel is written for a different purpose for a different audience. It’s interesting to see how the gospel of Matthew, which generally follows Mark quite closely, does not include Mark’s interpretive comments. Matthew’s audience, made up largely of Jews, is quite different.
- I grew up in a church culture that was very dedicated to keeping the Sabbath Day holy. It was one of the chief markers of Christian piety and of one’s dedication to Christ. But exactly what does that entail? Was it just refraining from work? What kinds of work? Was mowing the lawn work, or was it just one’s regular job? Should kids play on Sunday? If so, what kinds of games are appropriate? If you’re at the lake, is it OK to go swimming, or just to put your feet in the water?
These kinds of questions were taken quite seriously. It was thought that the more strict one’s approach to Sabbath observance, the more dedicated one was to the Lord. The possibilities for hypocrisy in such a church culture are manifold. We were a living reenactment of the Pharisees in their quest to enforce holiness through the outward observance of the law.
Most any church culture will develop certain outward actions as special marks of inner piety. It may be helpful to identify some of them in your congregation, or in your own life. In some places, it may be recycling or reducing energy consumption. in other places, it may be about making certain political commitments or stands on public morality that become the badge of true adherence. They may be good things, but they are not a very good barometer of where your heart is.
- Paul Schrader’s recent film “First Reformed” goes deeper. in part it’s a study in hypocrisy. Rev. Toller is set up by the local megachurch as pastor of the historic church in town, but is really just the curator of a museum. Abundant Life church seems to be a thriving congregation, but it’s largely funded by the wealthy owner of a factory that spews out pollution. Everything is fine as long as the real issues are not addressed. Rev. Toller begins to see more and more the hypocrisy that lurks under the surface of his public piety. The strength of the film is that it’s not a cheap shot at ecclesiastical hypocrisy, but a sympathetic, insiders view of the danger that always lurks when Christians confuse the outward aspects of faith with true inward transformation.
CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.
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