Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 29, 2021
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Commentary
The lectionary’s selection of verses for this week could be seen as a helpful streamlining to the main idea or as a heavy-handed push to that main idea… Many lectionary commentaries choose to treat the passage as whole, so take time to consider whether hearing all 23 verses will benefit your congregation in understanding the main point of Jesus’ words. I’ll be commenting on the selected verses.
The crux of the matter is that Jesus re-centers purity for his followers: instead of just looking at exterior activity, we are to consider our activities’ interior source, the heart. Further, we see the greatest threat of tradition: adding so much to the intent of God’s commandment that the law’s true purpose is utterly lost.
When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not take on the ritual task of washing before they eat, they aren’t asking out of concern for personal hygiene. They’re asking because this sort of washing has become an identity marker for them as Jewish people—they were the only ethnic/religious group that practices such a thing; it sets them apart, and it helps them tell others apart.
Notice how Mark takes the time to describe the thoroughness of their washing: they wash all of their food vessels, and any time they are out and about among people who are different than them, they come home and “clean” off anything that might have gotten them “dirty” (or unclean/defiled, to use the biblical term.) These details serve a dual purpose. Mark is writing to a mostly non-Jewish community who didn’t understand or practice these rituals so he needs to explain them, and they show us how far removed this human tradition had become from the law it is rooted in.
In Exodus 30.17-21, Moses is told to set up a wash basin for the priests to use before going into the presence of God, including when they are going to make an animal offering to the Lord on behalf of the people. They washed in recognition and as an expression of the holiness of God (as in, humans are not holy compared to God, the always holy one). To put it briefly, priestly ritual cleansing related to food was about marking and communicating the holiness, purity, and oneness of God more than it was about anything else.
Eventually, someone somewhere decided that if it was good for priests to do, it would be good for everyone to do, and a new tradition was born (yes—there is a moment in time when a tradition is NOT). And see how the tradition, shaped by human hands and hearts, becomes about us rather than about God? The Pharisees’ question reveals their focus: they aren’t angry that God’s holiness is being violated, they are insulted that “these people” aren’t setting themselves apart from “those people” as is “our custom.” Instead of God’s purity, the tradition of the elders made the ritual cleansing be about separating themselves from others, about their own purity compared to others. True, a definition of holiness is “to be set apart,” but God’s intent with this and other purity laws had taken on a whole new life and meaning through the “tradition of the elders.”
The infatuation with washing was a matter of ritual purity, whereas by verses 21-23, Jesus has focused our attention on moral purity. Ritual purity was not about sin but about the wholeness of God being symbolically expressed by his people. Modern Christianity doesn’t really distinguish between the moral and ritual purity the way that Judaism and the early church did. There’s probably something good about that, but we could do well with a bit more care taken to parsing things out. Considering the ways we talk in circles about “modesty” and “purity,” understanding that some things may not be good to be around or exposed to (a matter of ritual purity), but that they don’t actually make people bad (i.e, they aren’t sin in and of themselves), could help us find the nuance that is lacking in these conversations.
Let’s consider this from the context of the passage. Jesus calls the crowd in verse 14 so that he can awaken them to what the “tradition of the elders” has poorly shaped in them. Though ritual cleansing, when done as God commands, teaches an important message about God, what they are engaged in is actually teaching them a dangerous, false lesson about themselves. Jesus tells them that when it comes to food, they don’t need to worry about the “bad” from outside getting into them; there’s no interaction, person, or food that can contaminate them—they are plenty capable of this on their own.
By Jesus’ words, we see how our human traditions, whether we mean them to or not, can lead us very far from the will of God. What was once about the purity of God has become about something entirely different—about making ourselves feel better compared to someone else, so Jesus steps in to reorient us back to himself.
Moral purity, unlike ritual purity, is about sin. Jesus wants us to be more concerned about our own sin and hearts. Jesus calls us to pay attention to what is coming out of us because it is an even more important way that we symbolically express the wholeness and purity of God to the world: not by separating ourselves from those who are different, but by living according to the fruit of the Spirit.
What I also find interesting is how Jesus lists vices that happen within human interactions. How we treat one another truly is a sign of how we worship and image God. But given the particular context of food and washing—practices that were used to separate people— it’s as though Jesus is trying to re-root us in our associations with others: that in our posture of loving God and loving neighbour, service is superior to separation in the way of holiness.
One final note about this pericope: it marks a pivot point in Jesus’ interactions. The rest of the gospel, beginning with next week’s text, will include Jesus interacting with non-Jewish people. Coincidence? I think not.
The Greek word for “hypocrite” doesn’t have the same moral weight to it that our modern English word does. As Jesus is using it here, it refers to an actor playing a part or someone who is putting on a show but whose true identity and heart isn’t in it. In the case of the Pharisees, Jesus saw in them what the Holy Spirit has been trying to get the people of God to see about themselves throughout our history: being obsessed about and satisfied to stay focused on outward devotion reveals a heart that is far from God. Their hearts were not in true communion with and worship of God, and this resulted in their human ideas becoming more important than God’s commands. The modern idea of a hypocrite is to say one thing and do another. In our text’s version of being a hypocrite, they do exactly what they say; the problem is that instead of God filling their hearts, it’s their own tradition and ideas that rule the nest. Of course, both forms of hypocrisy are bad.
Also, if you’re sticking to the lectionary’s selections, it is good to note that each section has Jesus in dialogue with a different group of people:
in verses 1-8, Jesus is speaking with the Pharisees and scribes;
in verses 14-14, Jesus is teaching the crowd;
in verses 21-23, Jesus is explaining things in private to the disciples.
We get to witness and be shaped by all three stages of the conversation. The three partners are a good reminder that our traditions have implications for different groups in faith communities:
there are some who set the tone of expectation and establish tradition (a human understanding of how to live God’s will on a specific subject) as the measure for everyone;
there are some who follow the tradition because “it’s what we do”—believing that the tradition is (unquestionably) the same as the will of God;
and there are some who are becoming awakened by the Spirit to the ways our traditions have become more human-focused than God-willed.
Illustrations for passages such as this can be tricky, sticky, dangerous ground. It seems that we are in a particularly divisive and polarizing time—especially in the church in North America. These days, the stakes are much higher than arguing over sanctuary carpet colour… As you consider the “sacred cows” of your congregation and how best to help them be open to the heart transforming words of Christ, you’ll likely be aware of the hotspots in your midst. The following two examples may be too hot, or, they may be far enough removed to help your congregation grasp the sort of thing Jesus is trying to awaken. But, we don’t use examples to make ourselves (our churches, our denominations) feel better about ourselves; they’re meant to help us see ourselves more clearly. So, blessings to you as you move from illustration to application for your community.
The Southern Baptist Convention has taken center stage in religious news this year, and for some, it is a literal debate about tradition becoming a “smoke screen” for avoiding deeper, moral issues. Just as Jesus brings the matter to the interior piety, some members of America’s largest denomination are trying to raise issues of sexual abuse and misogyny, racism, and power among their ranks, and they have met resistance. Prominent figures within the denomination seem to have chosen women’s ordination as a more important challenge to the well-being of the church. Whether you view women’s ordination as an issue of tradition or not, it is undisputable that it has become one of those outward litmus tests for faith communities, a position that many people hold without understanding why; for many, it has become tradition: something to focus on that is outside of our own hearts—about someone else (like the disciples not washing their hands). On the other hand, having to address systemic racism and misogyny would mean having to look within, and it would mean having to carefully examine with the Holy Spirit each of our religious traditions. That’s a big task for individuals, let alone churches, and denominations. It isn’t surprising that most of us would rather focus elsewhere.
For an overview of this situation in the Southern Baptist Convention:
On a more “local” level, I remember this one Sunday at church when a young child talked quite loudly through the entire worship service. Afterwards, I met an irate, long-standing member in the church office. A leader in the church at the time, the man revealed with his angry words how many people probably view that sacred Sunday hour: he was angry that his “nice time with his friends” was interrupted; he yelled about how he came to church to be with his friends and how this kid ruined it. He wasn’t mad because he thought God had been disrespected, he was mad because he didn’t get to feel the way worship usually makes him feel. That’s what a human tradition and ritual is all about, isn’t it, making us feel a certain way about ourselves? In the case of the Pharisees and scribes, it made them feel set apart from non-Jewish people. But in the course of setting up a way to get that feeling, separating from others became central to the task—and that willingness and acting to separate reveals an interior immorality, a broken heart in need of Christ’s mending.
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