Year B, Pentecost 15
Mark 7: 1-23
Over the last month and a half, we have been reading from the Gospel of John. It’s been a little heady and dense. The Gospel of Mark is a welcome reprieve from the theology of John. However, it’s a little unsettling to be suddenly dropped in the middle of an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees. Therefore, let me provide a recap of the chapter that preceded our Gospel reading for today. It’s been a busy time for Jesus and his disciples. He fed the 5000, he walked on water and healed a bunch of people. This was just the 2nd half of chapter 6. As a result, Jesus was a rising star, which meant that his actions and the actions of his disciples were more closely scrutinized then they had previously been.
Who better to scrutinize actions and make judgments than the Pharisees and Scribes? These men were the experts in the laws and the rules around the laws. They had dedicated their lives to the study of these laws. It was their job to explain the laws to people and make sure that people were following them. Often times, they get a bad rap and I am not sure it is always merited.
A lot of people like to paint Jesus as this anti-establishment rebel who was trying to change the Jewish faith and dismantle the institution. But this was not what he was doing. He was trying to get them to go back to the basics, consider what the important things were The laws of the Jewish people were the 10 Commandments and the first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). However, over the years leaders of the faith built up rituals and traditions to protect these laws.
Many people compare these rituals and traditions to a fence. They built a fence around the laws so they could protect the people from breaking the laws. This fence became so high and so dense, that no one even knew that there was something behind it. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold on to human tradition.”
The law that the disciples were breaking in this story was not a law at all. It was a ritual that had been created by religious leaders over hundreds of years. It was not for cleanliness, it was ceremonial. It came out of the act of thanksgiving, like how we say grace before a meal. It started for good reasons. They wanted to recognize that every meal was an opportunity to give thanks and an opportunity for religious fellowship. Then some people got so obsessed with the ritual, they put more emphasis on that than the thanksgiving and fellowship. Jesus was showing them that they could still give thanks and have fellowship without all these add ons.
Thankfully getting lost in the details never happens in Christians Churches. We never create traditions and rituals and forget the reason behind the tradition. We never get upset when something changes. No one has ever said, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Of course we do. We also have our own oral laws (or what Mark refers to as the tradition of the elders). Some of our traditions have been honed over 100s of years. But some have only been around for 5 or 10 years. It is amazing how quickly traditions can take root in the church.
Unfortunately in admitting that this clinging to tradition happens in our churches today, I have to admit that the clergy are often the Pharisees. As a clergy person, I am the one that makes sure the things that we do in the service are liturgically proper. This was part of my seminary training. Let me show you an example of these oral laws that have been written down.
*These are essentially text books. They tell you how to stand, when to kneel, when to cross yourself. They don’t all agree. (In the spoken sermon—I show books!)
*This book is full of Episcopal vocabulary. That’s right. These are all words that we made up. We had to memorize them and I have forgotten at least 50%.
*This is a commentary on the Book of Common Prayer. It tells you what all the things in italics really mean.
*This is a book on the canon laws of the church. Apparently there is another book explaining the laws which only the most exceptional church nerds know about.
Now some of these things are helpful, some of them even necessary. But a lot is just unnecessary detail. Many clergy will disagree with me on that…and they are the one who own more of these books. We could argue about it, but that would probably make us even more like the Pharisees in this text. Of course if we are honest, we will admit that it’s not just the clergy who guard tradition. We all do. Some of these traditions that we guard are shared by many churches and some are specific to individual churches. Recently someone told me that you need to wear a tie to be an usher at St. John’s. This surprised me as I have never seen this written anywhere. I have read our church bylaws. That rule is not in there. Maybe it was a rule at some point, but I challenge any of you to find it written.
Or let’s look more broadly at a rule that many liturgical churches are passionate about—that there can be no Christmas music or decorations until after the 4th Sunday of Advent. I assume this is written down somewhere, but I’ve never seen it. I know the reason behind it, but we tend to go a little overboard with it on occasion. It’s not like lightening is going to strike us if we sing Away in the Manger on December 15th.
The traditions that we have, come from a rich history and the great majority of them have a holy and profound purpose. The problem comes when our commitment to these traditions gets in the way of how we love our neighbor or when we spend more time arguing about the rules than we spend actually doing the work God has called us to do. That is when these rules and traditions are dangerous.
The Pharisees were upset because the disciples were eating with defiled hands. This is not because their hands were literally dirty. Their hands were defiled because they had not been ritually cleansed. They were blind to the good work that Jesus and his disciples were doing because they were so concerned with how it all looked, how it reflected on them. They were so focused on the change itself, they never noticed the positive outcome of that change. They could not see the people who were drawn to Jesus because he didn’t worry about laws that determine ritual cleanliness.
There is a point in our spiritual journey, when we should look for the Pharisee within us. Just like the Pharisees built a fence around the law, we have built fences around our hearts. Jesus was not only concerned about the heart of the law, he was and is concerned about the heart of each one of us. Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
We can do all the right things in worship. We can cross ourselves at the right time, we can kneel when the prayer book tells us to. But if all those actions are devoid of any real feeling, what’s the point? When we become too comfortable in our life and our faith, when the status quo becomes our creed, it is then when we have to ask ourselves: Are we protecting God’s law or are we protecting ourselves? And what exactly are we protecting? Because I am fairly certain that God’s love doesn’t need our human made protections. God’s law of love, doesn’t need our fences.