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A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting friends who have a couple of kids and while the adults were chatting, this scene unfolded. The three year-old wants to play with his older sister and the older sister wants to read her book. The three year-old slaps the books out of her hand so that he gets his point across to her. She goes and tells her dad what happened. Having seen it unfold himself, the dad calls his son over and says, – well, can you guess what he said? – He says to his son, “Tell your sister you’re sorry.” When we are children, we are taught to say we’re sorry.
For many of us, our parents and guardians began instruction of this lesson even before we really understood what it meant to feel regret. But, through this ritual, we learn and are shaped by this habit. At some point or another, we all have had the metaphorical book slapped from our hands and we all have slapped the book out of someone else’s hand too. We’ve learned that when you do something wrong, you have to tell the person you wronged that you’re sorry. And, eventually, we learn the important lesson that there are consequences to our actions; we learn the feeling of regret; and we learn the power an apology can have in a relationship.
As we just heard from Sam’s reading of the first Scripture lesson, James instructs us to be “doers of the word, not merely hearers.” And as we will hear in our second scripture lesson, Jesus calls us to pay attention to our words and our actions.
What we say and what we do matters – we don’t often have the opportunity to ponder our own actions as individuals and as a community, so I invite you to prayerfully enter into this text with me and listen for God’s Word for us.
Our Gospel lesson this morning comes to us from verses strung together in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Mark. You’ll notice that we’re skipping other verses from the chapter to focus our attention. You can read for yourself the other verses of the chapter, but the lectionary does a good job of directing our attention to a finer point so that we can see more clearly the scene at hand.
Let us pray:
Gracious and Loving God, speak to us. Startle us with your love and break open our hearts to bear witness to your transformative power. Amen.
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now 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 honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then 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.”
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.”
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
A little bit of background: Believed to have been the first of the New Testament Gospels written around the time of 60 A.D., the initial audience of the Gospel of Mark had a distinct sense of urgency. The literary style seems crude – transitions typically are marked by a simple word such as “and” or “immediately” – and at first pass, the author of Mark seems to add simple details that seem inconsequential. But the Gospel is centered intentionally around a specific theme – that “Jesus’ followers are summoned to faithful vigilance during an arduous, ambiguous time between the inauguration and consummation of the kingdom of God” (Black, HarperCollins). Brevity is key for this author, who believes there is no time to lose in sharing the news that the kingdom of God is at hand, and each word has careful meaning. An example of this is reflected in our text for this morning.
In the first verse of our reading, we learn that the Pharisees and the scribes are from Jerusalem. “For Mark, Jerusalem’s greatest significance is that it is where Jesus will die. [Throughout the narrative, Mark] is breathlessly hurtling toward Jerusalem, and to the death and resurrection of Jesus that will set the fulfillment of the kingdom of God in motion. By noting that these Pharisees and scribes are from Jerusalem, Mark is linking not only them, but this entire event, to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is because the kingdom is at hand (Mark 2:15) that it’s imperative that Jesus’ message is understood, right now.” (Webb, workingpreacher.org)
But, as urgent as it is to get the message out, Mark still has a little bit of fun in this text – as narrator, the author uses some hyperbole to help the readers find themselves in the story. By using the hyperbolic phrase “all the Jews,” the author draws attention to the fact that there are, indeed, different factions of Jews and Pharisees, and that traditions vary among them. The very fact that “some” of the disciples were not following the tradition indicates that not ‘all of the Jews’ followed the same rules. In this passage, the human-created ritual of washing hands thoroughly before eating is highlighted – a ritual not reflected in the Old Testament. However, “the “tradition of the elders” refers to oral interpretations of the Mosaic law, which the Pharisees and scribes consider authoritative” (Webb). All of this is to say that even before the Pharisee asks why the traditions of the elders aren’t being followed, the author begins to highlight where this is going – we’re looking at the big picture here, we’re looking to the kingdom of God, and Jesus is preparing us.
So, Jesus is gathered with his disciples and just as they sit down for a meal, a group of Pharisees and scribes walk up and take note of the scene, scrutinizing every detail of what is happening. They approach Jesus and present him with their question. With a touch of hyperbole again, the Pharisees ask Jesus why some of his disciples are not following the tradition of the elders before eating a meal. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Typical to what we see elsewhere in Mark,Jesus responds to the question by reciting the prophet Isaiah and redirecting attention away from the topic of the question, to its underlying nature. Quickly, our focus moves from the practice of a traditional ritual to the purpose of it. Quickly, our focus moves from ‘it’s not about what goes in the mouth to ‘it’s about what comes out.’ Following the rules only gets you so far, the real question is, are you being changed by it.
So, let’s first take a moment to ponder what Jesus is doing to shift our focus from the practice of the ritual to the purpose of it. For us Presbyterians who love polity and all things decent and in order, this can be difficult, perhaps as it was for the Pharisees and scribes to grasp.
Rituals – in the religious world, rituals are important. They are created to connect our physical bodies with deep and spiritual meaning. Rituals engage the whole body, like washing before a meal, or taking communion, and they have the power to shape and form our spiritual being. They are easy to practice because typically, rituals come with a rubric to follow, boundaries to stay within, a pattern to adhere to. At times, however, practicing rituals can feel habitual and the spiritual connection can be difficult to sense. And in our text today, Jesus invites the Pharisees, the scribes, and us, to re-examine and delve deeper into the meaning of the rituals we take part in.
You see, Jesus reminds us that rituals, which are created to facilitate a sense of connection with God, change and grow over time, even though the underlying purpose remains the same. This evolution of ritual unfolds into the New Testament and is still happening today. But, as we see in the text, ritual is useful only insofar as it inspires the members of the community to better connect with the spirit, to better understand the character of God and to equip us to reflect the love of God in our lives. The rules of the ritual are not the point – the point is the connection with God and with one another. And, this morning, through the lens of a ritual, Jesus reveals a deeper layer to consider and invites us to delve into sources of sin and darkness within our own being.
This is convicting text – and, if we are willing to take Jesus seriously, our text this morning compels us to consider how we are shaped and formed by our religious rituals. It compels us to re-examine the rituals and traditions we take part in and consider how our faith is deepened and how it impacts our lives – as individuals and as a community. As individuals, we wake up on any given Sunday morning and venture to this place. And, as a community, we gather and participate in the ritual of Christian worship. Through ritual, we open ourselves to ways in which God can enter into our lives and transform our hearts and minds, orienting us towards loving neighbor. Through ritual, the brokenness of our human lives encounters the sacred and holy. And, it is here where we are invited to reflect on the things we say, the actions we take, and prayerfully consider if what comes out of us reflects our faith in a loving and living God beyond this practice.
Jesus is drawing our attention to the difficult task of living faithfully in the world – and not just theoretical faithfulness, but practical faithfulness, day-by-day. We, as Christians, are called to serve others, to love freely, to forgive abundantly, to live joyfully, to practice justice, to walk humbly with God. And yet, as humans, we all fall short. Every single one of us has been loose lipped with criticism or anger, harshness or manipulative speak – I know I have been. And, I would imagine, we’ve all been on the receiving end of it too. That’s why we have adages like, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” – it is an effort to protect ourselves from the inevitable pain of name-calling, gossip, and judgment. But, like the Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus challenges us to pay attention to what comes out of our hearts, to pay attention to what words we speak and how we say them. He challenges us to pay attention to what comes out of our hearts, in addition to the words, when we say that we’re sorry after slapping the metaphorical book from our sister’s hand.
Each week, we gather here as a community of faith – as individuals broken and sinful. And, each week, we confess to one another and to God the ways that we have sinned as individuals and as a people. And we wait, with bated breath, for the declaration of the Good News – that we are forgiven, that we are renewed, that we are loved and good and worthy children of God, even still. Weekly, we confess aloud together the ways in which we have sinned so that we can remember once again that we are not perfect, that we are not God, and neither is the person sitting next to us. We need to hear again, that even in our brokenness, God’s abundant gift of mercy is freely given to us and we are free to receive it. Even in our brokenness, we are loved and lovable, we are called good and beloved child of God, and we are free to go out and live life reflecting God’s love in the midst of our complex world. We are free to show mercy and to love kindness and to be doers of our faith, not merely hearers of it.
Our God is a boundary breaking God, with the capacity to break through the habit of ritual to awaken in us new life as forgiven people, called to forgive others and to love our neighbor in meaningful, not rhetorical ways. God has broken into this world through Jesus Christ and God will even break through the bonds of sin and darkness that dwells within our hearts. Again and again, if we are willing to take the words of Isaiah and the teachings of Jesus seriously, how might we reflect, more intentionally, the love God has for each one of us as individuals and as a community of faith? Amen.