Meditation on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Sept. 2, 2018
Merritt Island Presbyterian Church
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and 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.) So 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?’ He 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; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
I have just returned from Montreat where I took a 30-hour class called, “The Art of Transitional Ministry.”
This was the second part of the basic course I took 2 years ago to strengthen my skills and help the church navigate the adventures that are ahead of us. One of our instructors told us, after her greeting, “All pastoral leaders are leaders of transition because we live in a time of constant transition.”
We brainstormed a list of transitions churches are going through today. Do any of these sound familiar to you? Some are moving from larger, multi-generational congregations to smaller, aging congregations, with fewer children, youth and young adults. Some are experiencing a decline in pledging and giving. Some are going through leadership transitions—pastors and staff, elders and deacons. Some have sessions of only 5 or 7 and are still having trouble filling openings! We talked about shrinking Sunday schools and choirs; change in regular attendance and change in attitudes about joining a church; change in activities and programs. We talked about churches struggling with divisions because of “national politics” or struggling with congregational splits, due to actions of the General Assembly to open up ministry leadership to all who possess leadership gifts, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Many of the changes and transitions are not negative; they are cause for joy and celebration! A church is re-opening a closed nursery after new families have come! Others have thriving preschools and mid-week enrichment or tutoring programs; others are enjoying new energy and purpose, looking for new ways to do hands-on ministries and welcome neighbors and strangers in the changing neighborhoods around their churches. One church is reaching out to Cameroonian refugees. Isn’t that cool? Others have growing interfaith relationships or are incorporating new technology and new music styles in worship.
We are reconsidering the language we use to talk about church. We are rethinking our definitions for “mission” and talking more about being “missional.” “Missional” churches aren’t just gathering places for the saints; we are people whom God is equipping and sending out to serve in Christ’s name! Our “mission” isn’t just telling people how they may be saved, so they will go out and tell others how they may be saved, too. There’s a kind of superiority to that—that we have all the answers and people just need to listen and do what we say! Our shared “mission” is more than coming to church on Sunday, though that is foundational to our faith. Our “mission” is to live lives of worship, learning to walk humbly in Christ’s ways, love tenderly, doing justice and showing mercy and grace, so that others will see Christ in us and want to know Him more.
During our discussion, on that first day at Montreat, one church’s transitional experience stood out to me as profound. A pastor said her congregation is moving from being “consumers” to “disciples.” Some of us whispered, “Wow.”
That made me think of the Pharisees—and the problem they had—that human traditions got in the way of being obedient to God’s commands. And that the problem was with their hearts. And how easy it would be–for some who love the church and our Sunday worship and the music as I do—to fall into the sin of being “religious consumers” and place too much value on human traditions. We could begin to think that the sum of our human traditions is what being the Church is, rather than being the spiritual Body of Christ, formed for His loving purposes.
How easy it could be to make worship all about us. When it’s all about Him! At the heart of worship is loving Jesus with all our hearts.
The Pharisees in Mark’s gospel have come from Jerusalem and have been following him around and plotting against him since he healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
So, they are looking for something to use against him—and the hatred they feel toward him is intense. They aren’t just wanting to embarrass or humiliate him; they want to, scripture says, “destroy him.”
They see his disciples are eating without washing their hands. That doesn’t seem like a big deal to us, but it is. They are drawing a line in the sand and saying that Jesus and the disciples are not one of them.
They are outsiders and outlaws, disobeying the “tradition of the elders” and by doing so, they and not just their hands have become defiled or unclean. They exaggerate, though, when they say, “all the Jews do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands.” Scholars can’t find biblical support for this as a universal requirement. Numbers 18:8-13 talks about this requirement only for Jewish priests and their households who eat meat sacrificed to the Lord in the temple. (William Placher, Mark, 101).
But this is key to understanding the passage; the Pharisees are looking for something to hold against Jesus and his disciples—something that they may sincerely believe is true, when it isn’t—that if they eat without washing their hands, they will be made unclean, even if what they eat is permissible by dietary laws. They are consumers of their religion, knowing and relishing all the rules and knowing how to use them to their favor and, they hope, to bring about the downfall of their enemies.
Jesus isn’t flustered or startled. He has a plan. He uses their attack as a teaching opportunity. They are hypocrites, he says, and he quotes Isaiah 29:13; this is the first “scriptural rebuttal” in Mark (Marcus, 449).
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” he says; “in vain, do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines”—meaning their worship, which is how they live their whole lives in submission to God’s commands—is ALL ABOUT THEM. “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition,” Jesus adds, meaning human tradition actually replaces and violates God’s commands.
Unfortunately, the lectionary omits an important piece of the passage, when Jesus gives an example of how the Pharisees use human traditions to break the commandment to “honor your father and mother.”
The sons dedicate their property to the temple. If their father or mother gets into financial trouble, the sons are supposed to help them by selling some of their property and giving their parents the money. But if they have dedicated their property to God, they can say, “Sorry, I can’t help you,” “thus making void the word of God,” Jesus says in 7:13, “through your tradition that you have handed on.” You’ve been doing this a long time and teaching it to your children! “And you do many things like this.”
Jesus isn’t finished with his lesson, which isn’t just for the Pharisees and his disciples; it’s for everyone, including us. He calls the crowd together and tells a short parable. “Listen to me,” he says, Listen up! “all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” With his parable, Jesus declares all foods “clean” and blasts those who hold to the dietary laws—that’s everybody in his community! Think how many people he is offending with his message, especially the religious authorities! He criticizes those who hold to the food laws, but fail to love, as he will say in Mark 12:30-31, the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength…and their neighbor as themselves. The evil intentions that stir us to sin against God and neighbor, he says, come not from the devil! We can’t say the devil made me do it! The evil intentions come from within the human heart!
What’s interesting is how this passage seems to foreshadow what will happen with the early church in Acts. Some of you have been reading Acts in Sunday school– how the food laws are, at first, a stumbling block for the Jewish apostles to share the gospel with Gentiles. But in Acts 10, Peter has a vision of a sheet of animals that the food laws proclaim unclean coming down from heaven. Some of my Bible professors called this the “meat blanket .” A voice commands, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter says, “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that,” because he’s never done that before. He was taught this was wrong! But the voice from heaven repeats the command—isn’t that what God does when we don’t listen the first time– and says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Peter eventually realizes God isn’t just talking about food; he’s talking about people. “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile,” he will say to a Gentile named Cornelius, who invited Peter to his home to share his message of the Risen Christ. “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”
In a few moments, we will gather around the Lord’s table.
Our Lord welcomes all to come to Him, wherever we are on our journeys of faith. We come to spiritually partake of a heavenly banquet, to feed on Christ’s body, broken for our sakes and His blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. We come as people who still struggle with sin and doubt, but also as the Redeemed. We come with sincere faith—because if we don’t have faith, it won’t mean anything to us. We come with open hearts, praying for a glimpse of God’s Reign, to experience God’s presence, and receive His grace. We come not as religious consumers but as joyful disciples, seeking to be closer to the One who loves and accepts us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way. We come to be transformed, united, reconciled. For there are no divisions in Christ’s Body. We are one in Him.
We come with gratitude for all that God has done, for the promise of eternal life with Him. We come to be strengthened and encouraged, equipped and sent out as Christ’s Body for the world! As we come, we can’t help but remember that worship is not about us. It’s all about Him.
Let us pray.
Holy One, We love you and thank you for Jesus, who died so that we may be reconciled and brought into right relationship with you and one another. Thank you for your promises to us—that you will be with us always, that by your Spirit we are made one in You. That we are Your Church, so therefore we do not fear for our future, for in life and in death, we belong to you. Strengthen us through all the transitions you have planned for us. We trust in you for all the adventures that lay ahead. Make us, Lord, into your faithful, joyful disciples. May we never be merely religious consumers, seeking to have our desires fulfilled, rather than seeking to be pleasing to YOU. Draw us closer to you in worship. May it be all about you. Send us out to live as your Redeemed in gratitude to YOU. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.