St. John's, Centreville
September 2, 2018
Proper 17 B
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Statutes. Ordinances. Rituals. Traditions. Commandments. Laws. Defilement. Cleanliness. Our readings for this morning have to do with the traditions and rituals of the people versus the commandments and the will of God.
In our Old Testament lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is telling the people, who are nearing the end of their wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the promised land, that they must follow the commandments of God. He urges obedience for their sake and the sake of their children. If Israel follows God's commandments, they will live to occupy the land that God is giving them, and they will be respected by other nations because God is near to them.
In Psalm 15, the writer advocates for moral qualities and interpersonal attitudes that will bring us closer to God, that will enable us to live the way God wants us to live. These include doing no evil to a friend, watching what you say, not going back on your word, not taking any bribes or giving money in hope of personal gain.
In our reading from the Letter of James, we are told to be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger". We should listen first and foremost, before speaking ourselves, to listen to the voices of others. Anger often causes us to say and do things that we later regret. We must not only listen to God's word but do it. "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world," says the author of James. It is not enough to sit and hear God's word. We must act on it.
Our gospel reading from Mark talks about what makes us defiled. The scribes and Pharisees, who are the keepers of the law, are chastising Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat without first washing their hands. They are not following the traditions of the elders. Jesus replies that the scribes and the Pharisees are not following the commandments of God but rather holding on to human traditions.
Jesus goes on to say that it is not things that happen outside of us that makes us defiled, but what comes from within us. It is what is in our hearts that make us clean or defiled. Evil intention or good intentions come from the heart, not from the outside, not whether we wash our hands or not.
Some human traditions and rituals may be good for us, like washing your hands before eating and other sanitary practices. But that's not where our focus should be when it comes to following God. What are our thoughts and feelings toward others? How do we treat others, as we want to be treated? How do we speak to others - with dignity and respect? The scribes and the Pharisees were looking just at the letter of the law, not its intention, not at the larger picture, not how it should impact our lives. They were defining defilement in terms of outside action, not what was going on inside the heart. And Jesus set them straight.
Jesus tells them that it is not what goes into our bodies that defiles us, such as unclean food, but it is what comes from the heart that defiles us. It is our words that hurt, our sinful, selfish acts that defile us and make us unclean. It is those things that we do to our friends, or family or co-workers that is wrong or hurtful or not in their best interests that make us unclean before God, and in need of God's forgiveness.
The Pharisees are mixing up the authority of tradition with the authority of God. Traditions can be good and can be important for our lives. But when they get in the way of truly honoring and serving God, or cause us to exclude others by judging who is "in" and who is "out", they need to be examined and changed.
Human traditions need to change when they hurt or exclude others from the community of faith. They need to change when the Holy Spirit is leading us to be more accepting of those who are different from us; when the Holy Spirit seeks to deepen our relationship with God and calls us to step out of our comfort zone.
We need to follow God's laws, God's commandments. But traditions set up by humans sometimes need to change for the welfare of all and the fulfilling of God's kingdom. It's not easy to change "the way we have always done things". But if human traditions never changed, women would not be ordained, African Americans would still be sitting in the back of the bus, and the LGBT community would stay as far away from the church as possible. We follow the authority of God, not the authority of traditions.
The scribes and the Pharisees considered the disciples unclean because they did not wash their hands before they ate. Who do we consider unclean today? Who do we keep at arm's length because they don't follow our traditions? Perhaps it's those who practice other religions, religions we do not understand, so we reject not only the religion but the person who follows that religion as well. Perhaps it's those who come from different backgrounds whose traditions are different from ours. Their cultures are strange to us, their food is different, so they must in some way be defiled, unclean. Lepers who walked down the streets in India used to have to shout "unclean, unclean" so people would know not to come into contact with them. What does that do to a person's image of themselves as children of God, made in God's image?
What defiles a person comes from the inside. What do we do that defiles us before God? Our readings this morning have a whole list of violations and I am sure we could add many more - giving money to charities in the hope of person gain, going back on one's word, taking bribes, theft, murder, adultery, wickedness, slander, pride, deceit, lying, hurtful or demeaning speech, making false accusations, the list could go on and on.
Jesus says to the Pharisees, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold on to human tradition." How are we like the Pharisees? Do we hold on to human traditions rather than following the commandments of God? May we each look deep within ourselves, root out the evil that may lie within us, and ask for God's forgiveness as we move forward as children of God. Amen.