Week of Sunday 2 September - Pentecost 14
Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
7Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and 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.) 5So 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?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
9 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 11But 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)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.* He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.....
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I’m guessing the people of Jesus’ time were into visual, practical hygiene, a bit like my friend Alan. At the church barbecue, when some lemon pie came past on a plate, Alan helped himself. Out of good manners and concern for the rest of us, he wiped his knife on his elastic sides before using it to serve himself some pie. His new wife, Glenda, fresh from the city, was mortified; “Oh... Alan!” she cried in despair.
“Don’t worry love. I haven’t worn these boots down the cow yard for weeks.”
Like Alan, the people of Israel were unconcerned about bacteria and the like. In an era when not having a bathroom at least as clean as an operating theatre is a major social sin, according to some TV advertisements, it is crucial to see this. The reading from Mark 7 has nothing to do with cleanliness or hygiene.
It has everything to do with holiness, and what holiness is not.
Jesus is speaking into a cultural situation where people’s closeness to God, their holiness, was dependent on following the correct ritual. The Australian preacher Barry Chant once said, “In some places you are not truly spiritual unless you sing in tongues in the key of b minor.” As a Pentecostal, he assumed you would sing in tongues; the shibboleth concerned singing in the correct key! It’s likely we can all tell such stories. Jesus is still speaking to us!
When the reading begins Mark is actually sending people up. We mis-read verses three and four if we take them as information, or context. (Remember we are talking holiness, not hygiene.)
3For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and 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.
In a culture not obsessed with hygiene, the intention is clear: “Why would you do this? Crazy people!”
I think the verses are more about bemusement and even derision. Mark is inviting us to roll our eyes, a bit like this story from a colleague who recently stopped by a parish bible study group.
“They were deep in a lengthy and animated discussion about whether Jesus had freed us from captivity, or whether he had, in fact, freed us by placing us in captivity.”
I had not realised the eye-watering minutiae behind the issue of defilement versus holiness which Mark is sending up. Loader provides us with some background.
Normally only something which has first degree impurity could make a person impure or unclean. Food which may be touched by unclean hands would be rendered impure with second degree impurity. Such food when eaten could not render a person unclean.
What then was the concern among those here in our passage eager to obey biblical commands? What would be their objection to the disciples’ eating with unwashed hands? It clearly was not the issue of hygiene. Nor could it have been that touching food with unwashed hands rendered the food impure. Rather it was something more subtle. It was related to the likely presence of liquid. Liquid was different. If unclean hands touched liquid, the liquid became unclean with the first degree of uncleanness. If then the liquid in some way touched the food, the food became also unclean in the first degree. It is food which is unclean in the first degree which, eaten, would render the person unclean. To guard against this, perhaps remote, danger, some fairly extreme groups washed their hands ritually before meals. They criticised the disciples for not doing the same.
This stuff really is in eye-rolling territory. I’ve quoted Bill at length to make sense of his stunning, and very important comment, which follows:
Ferreting out how a commandment applied in such circumstances was not an idle pastime but an expression of spiritual dedication.
This is why people spend hours discussing “whether Jesus had freed us from captivity, or whether he had, in fact, freed us by placing us in captivity.” This is why, when I was much younger, to the despair of my new wife, I spent one Easter hand writing a 40 page letter on 'baptism in the spirit' to a friend. My friend did not need Parcel Post for his reply, but was equally intense and dedicated to God. We were searching for relationship with God. (We both ended up as clergy, which is a worry!)
Mark has a comment about the spiritual worth of all this effort. Read this carefully: if we use it as a measure of holiness, and especially as a measure of the holiness of others, it is just shit. This is not the language we would want to use on Sunday morning, but the meaning, and the emotional bluntness of Mark is just this abrupt.
He declared all foods clean.
For those who seek to follow the law as the path to relationship with God, this statement by Jesus is absolute blasphemy. But truly, what makes people un-holy in the sight of God is not what they eat, and not the way they pray. It is what comes out of them; who they are.
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
If our devotional practices and spiritual disciplines are not addressing the content of our heart then these same disciplines are just like food; passing straight through us, and might even be spiritual diahorrea.
The context of all this in Mark is vital. As Loader points out, it
is all part of Mark’s theme in these chapters, where he is showing the bread of salvation offered equally to the Jews, 5000 of them in Jewish land, as to the Gentiles, 4000 of them in Gentile land.
Equally important, not mentioned by Bill, is the fact that Jesus now goes to “away to the region of Tyre”; Gentile territory. And there he heals a child; the daughter of a woman whose un-holiness is emphasised; not merely a Gentile, but a Syrophoenician woman. Matthew calls her a Caananite: she is emphatically un-holy by Jewish norms.
The message is becoming clear; holiness, relationship with God, is for everyone. The old rituals no longer apply. In fact, Bill suggests that according to Mark, they never did! He says,
according to Mark, Jesus is declaring such laws not only invalid, but never valid. They make no sense, he is arguing. They never did. How can such external things affect spirituality!
He sums it up like this:
Paul contrasted ... two approaches [to life] by speaking of ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’. To follow the way of the letter (of the Law), you have more control; everything is defined; people easily fall into the background. The way of the Spirit says that, to God, people matter most. Biblical commands never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring. We have learned this slowly - from slavery to the position of women. We are learning it slowly in areas such as gender, sexual orientation and of power.
And then, a key point, as he continues.
It is important that we help people see how Jesus and Mark treated biblical authority, so that it becomes an instrument for health and not harm in our society. That was certainly a central issue in the ministry of Jesus and of the apostles and still is a central issue today.
I’ve remembered this morning a story from my father. At the end of the War he was tasked with supervising Japanese POWs, working on the docks. The horrors of Changi and Sandakan were fresh in people’s minds. Dad served in Borneo, but fortunately, after Sandakan. He told me his amazement when a Japanese soldier asked him, in perfect English, how well he knew Sydney. And they talked about the things they had done in Sydney; the man had been a wool buyer before the war.
Sixty five years later, the amazement was still in Dad’s voice; a kind of awe; a recognition that even in such appalling circumstances as that war, people are just people; or more correctly, perhaps, all people are people. What makes us holy, and allows us into the presence of God is not culture, or tradition, or ritual, or how we interpret the bible. It is who we are inside which determines our holiness. If our devotion and ritual opens us to God, and brings us to gentleness and compassion and mercy, then it is life giving. If our heart remains controlled by evil intentions ... "fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly...." then all our devotion and ritual is just...
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.