Clean Hands and Foul Hearts; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, September 5, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
In the text this morning, Jesus and the Pharisees are at it again. Head to head, toe to toe, battling it out.
Jesus and the disciples have been traveling along, off the beaten path. There have been healings and miracles, teaching and tragedy. If you look back in the 6th chapter of the gospel of Mark, you’ll see that Jesus has sent his disciples out to preach, they’ve dealt with John the Baptist, they’ve fed the 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish, and they’ve seen Jesus walk on water and calm the wind, out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. They’ve been working hard, they’ve seen and done some amazing things out there in the trenches. Now they’ve sit down along the road for a bite to eat.
There are some rare times when Jesus and his disciples take some time away—when Jesus will take them off by themselves to teach them, to give them some time to rest and be renewed—but this isn’t one of those times. There are frequently some other folks around, some who travel alongside them for a spell, watching, listening, learning what they can. So some of these folks are nearby, too, within ear-shot. They, too, have found a comfortable place to rest and to have a bite to eat. They’re listening in, talking among themselves, waiting to get up and move on with Jesus and his disciples when it’s time to move on to the next thing.
Some Pharisees and some teachers of the law, recently from Jerusalem, perhaps on their way to someplace else, but more likely purposefully seeking out Jesus and his followers, come to the place where they’ve settled and see the disciples are eating, obviously without having washed. No gas stations or washrooms nearby. Hand-sanitizer not yet available.
But cleanliness or fear of germs isn’t the point; in that day and age no one knew about germs. Handwashing was a religious ritual that protected the individual in case they had accidently come in contact with someone or something that was considered religiously unclean.
As we read this text, we receive some instruction on the law. Verses 3 and 4 are Mark’s commentary, added so we’ll know what the Pharisees are talking about. The gospel of Mark is written to the non-Jewish reader, at least 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He knows that the first century Gentile converts reading his account probably won’t understand Jewish law and practice, so he offers some explanation, which is helpful for us, too. I can imagine him adding this information with a bit of impatience, maybe even with a hint of sarcasm and eye-rolling: this is what the Pharisees are referring to, he tells us.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law, straight from the temple of Jerusalem (or what we might refer to as the “ivory towers of academia”), confront the dusty preacher—who has been traveling around the backwaters of Galilee—in front of his disciples and followers. Their purpose is more than concern; their intention is to discredit Jesus. To show him up. To reveal to all within hearing distance that Jesus obviously doesn’t have what it takes to be a teacher, a leader, a rabbi.
“Look at these men! Why aren’t they following the rules, eating without washing their hands?”
Jesus responds, calling the Pharisees hypocrites (which surely he wouldn’t expect would sweeten their relationship), and quoting the Prophet Isaiah along with one of the Ten Commandments to let them know their complaints have been registered, but certainly they ought be concerned about more important things. Here is Eugene Peterson’s translation of what Jesus says:
These people make a big show of saying the right thing,
but their heart isn’t in it.
They act like they’re worshipping me,
but they don’t mean it.
They just use me as a cover
for teaching whatever suits their fancy,
ditching God’s command
and taking up the latest fads.”
As the Prophet spoke to the leaders in his day, so, too, Jesus speaks to the leaders in his day (and to us, too, of course). He basically is telling them that it’s not what looks good on the outside that matters, it’s what’s happening inside. You might look just right, you may be following the rules, it may appear as though you’re in sync with God because you’re paying attention to the traditions of the faith. It would appear as though you’re doing all the right things. But are you living out God’s intentions? Are you allowing your life to be formed by God’s Word? Are you loving one another? Are you living out a life of grace? Are you seeking justice for the lost and downtrodden? Are you working for peace? Or are your hearts cold, your eyes blind and your arms limp when it comes to these things?
Are you remembering and living out the “why?”
Before we go any further this morning, I think it’s important for us to remember that Jesus wasn’t some outside agitator, banging on the doors of the Jewish leaders, trying to stir up trouble. He was a Jew, not simply by birth but in practice. He kept the commandments, he worshipped according to the law, he was a teacher of the Jewish faith. And in spite of their frequent skirmishes, Jesus and the Pharisees were in alignment politically: First century Pharisees were on the side of the common Jew, as was Jesus, and they were both opposed to Roman occupation. The Sadducees on the other hand, accommodated Rome, they worked with Rome and were rewarded by Rome for their betrayal. But Jesus was a faithful Jew, seeking to open the eyes of his brothers and sisters to God’s will and purpose for their lives—beyond rule-keeping.
That place where Jesus took issue was in the hedge of tradition that had been built up around the laws in order to prevent unintentionally breaking them. The issue under debate here is not whether Jesus’ disciples are adhering to the law, but whether they’re following the body of tradition that had developed alongside the law. Jesus wasn’t taking aim to shoot down what we would identify as kosher practice [the identification of clean and unclean practices], but instead, he sought to identify what was truly kosher. And what is truly kosher, as made clear in Leviticus 20:26, is to be holy to the Lord, to be set apart for God’s purposes.
Did God call the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt and into the place where they were led, set apart as God’s people for God’s purposes—to follow rules? To act within the bounds of tradition? To protect the faith? Or did God have something else in mind for them?
Tradition is a powerful thing. The Pharisees had learned to substitute tradition, custom, and habit for the presence of the living God. Jesus challenged the tradition. Because sometimes it can become mindless. Meaningless. Particularly when we forget “why” we’re doing what we do.
Years ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick told about a church in Denmark where the worshipers bowed regularly before a certain spot in the wall. They had been doing that for three centuries—bowing at that one spot in the sanctuary. Nobody could remember why. One day in renovating the church, they removed some of the whitewash on the walls. At the exact spot where the people bowed they found the image of the Madonna under the whitewash. People had become so accustomed to bowing before that image that even after being covered up and forgotten for three centuries, people still bowed.
What can we do to remember the “why?”
Next week we’re beginning the series “Committed to Christ” where we’re talking about the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible-reading, worship, witnessing, giving and serving. We practice these disciplines for reasons beyond habit. They connect us to God and to one another, they keep us alert to the movement of the Spirit, they shape us in the image of Christ. The spiritual disciplines aren’t just something we “do” as Christians, they’re who we are.
There’s the story of a ship rocking slowly at sea. Its sails were tattered, its masts splintered, its hull leaky with worm-eaten planks, but still it stayed afloat. It had been sailing for years—for generations, really. Many years ago it had been loaded with food and medicine and dispatched to find and to help the people of a lost colony. As it traveled far and wide, all its original crew except one had died, their places taken by their children.
In the prow, an old man—the last of the original crew—sat on a coil of rope, his watery eyes struggling to see through the fog.
Below deck, men, women and children were sitting down to eat. Although their fare was meager, it was adequate, and all their faces shown with health.
The meal was almost over when both doors of the messroom were thrown open with a loud noise and a rush of wind. In the opening stood the old man, strange and wild, stronger than they had ever seen him, shouting, “We’re HERE! We’ve arrived at land!”
“Land?” they asked, not moving from the tables. “What land?”
“Why, the land we were sent to when this voyage began. And the lost colony is there waiting. I can hear them shouting from the shore!” shouted the old man, stamping his feet with impatience. “Quick! Let’s make for shore and unload the food and the medicine!”
The old man turned to run back up the gangway, but stopped half way up when he realized there had been no movement from the messroom. Slowly he returned to stare at them with wide, incredulous eyes, his mouth agape. “Didn’t you hear me? Are you deaf? I said, we’re here! The people we were sent out to help are only a few hundred yards away. But we need to hurry, they’re all hungry and sick.”
“I’m sure we’d all like to help those people,” said one of the men, “but as you can see, there’s hardly enough food and medicine here to take care of us and our children.”
“Besides,” said one of the women, “we don’t know what kind of people they are. Who knows what might happen if we land and go among them.”
The old man staggered back as if he’d been struck across the face. “But…but...it was for them that this voyage began in the first place so many years ago. For them that this ship was built. For them that the food and medicine were stowed aboard!”
“Yes, old man, I’ve heard many tales of our launching from my father and from the other old men who are now dead,” replied one of the younger men. “But there were so many different accounts that how can we be sure which one is right? Why risk our stores and our provisions, perhaps even our lives on something that maybe we aren’t even supposed to be doing?”
“He’s right! He’s right!” shouted many of the others, now quite excitedly involved in the conversation.
“But look,” said the old man, trying very hard to contain himself. “It’s all very simple! As far as there not being enough food for us and for them, much of what we have left is meant for seed. If we go ashore and plant it, then there will be more than enough for all. And on the matter of why the ship was launched in the first place, you only need to look at the logbook. It’s all there.”
The old man, hoping he had settled the question, looked anxiously from face-to-face around the tables. There was a long, thoughtful silence.
Finally, a man who had gravitated to a position of leadership among them stood up, picking his teeth, and frowning thoughtfully.
“Perhaps the old man is right,” he said. “At any rate, his suggestion merits investigation. What I propose is this: let us select from among ourselves a representative committee which will see if they can find the old logbook, and then go into a thorough study of it, to see if they can determine whether we should land or not.”
“A sensible idea,” they all cried, except the old man. “Let’s do it!”
The old man, now frantic with hearing the cries from shore, shouted, “What is this? What are you doing? Oh!” he said, backing away from them with horror in his eyes. “I can see that you do not expect to do anything at all!” His back against the bulkhead, he clutched at his chest and slid weakly to the floor.
“Let me warn you, then,” he gasped. “The food will not last. It was meant to stay preserved only for the time it would take to get here. Now the food will begin to mold, the medicines will separate and lose their strength. If you don’t take the provisions ashore and share them, they will soon no longer feed or cure even you!” With this, he died.
As the days and weeks passed, the ship continued to lie offshore. The committee continued to search the logbook, which they had soon found, hoping to come up with a report “in the near future.” A few of the younger men and women, maddened with the waiting and lured irresistibly by the cries of hunger and pain from the shore, slipped away one night in the jolly boat with a few provisions, and were listed sorrowfully the next day as “lost at sea.”
True to the old man’s prophesy, the food on board began to grow all manner of weird and exotic fungi, and the extensive stores of medicine seemed less and less able to cure the ills of the people. Also, the cries from the shore began to grow so much louder that even the most hard of hearing on board had to stuff his ears with cotton in order to sleep.
No one seemed to be able to decide what to do.
(From “Lying Offshore,” in The Innovator and Other Modern Parables in
Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task, (Leader’s Guide, pp. 8-9).
Why do we do the things we do?
Are we educating those who are young in the faith about our traditions?
Do our traditions/our actions fulfill our mission and reveal who we are and who we want to be?
Do our actions reveal the heart of Christ, and God’s intention for our lives? God’s intention for our life together?