Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
It’s important to notice that Jesus is not talking to unbelievers when he goes on his rant in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel; he is talking to deeply devout religious people—people who want to please God. Frequently we read the Gospels with the sense that the scribes and Pharisees are the bad guys, but that is not the case. It is true that Jesus often locks horns with them, but that seems to be because many in their circles teach interpretations of God’s law that stray from God’s good intentions. In today’s Gospel reading, the scribes and Pharisees are worried about Jesus and some of his disciples breaking religious purity laws. Jesus doesn’t say, “The Hebrew understandings of God’s law is all wrong. I’m going to abolish all you’ve learned from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus and give you my own rules.” No. Jesus doesn’t eliminate Jewish law, instead he invites his hearers to reconsider which laws are essential and which laws are peripheral. We should never forget that Jesus was a devout Jew, who learned to honor his father and mother, not to kill or steal or bear false witness against his neighbor.
It’s true that when Jesus and some of his followers neglect the ritual of handwashing and begin to eat with unclean hands, they are breaking a purity law. (I think it’s also worth noticing that not ALL of the disciples neglected this tradition. I find it hopeful that even among Jesus’ disciples there were differences in the ways they observed and practiced the faith that had been taught to them. It gives me a lot of hope regarding ecumenical and interfaith relationships in our time—there is more than one way to express our faith in God). When the religious leaders confront Jesus and his disciples with their error, do Jesus and his followers say, “Oops! Forgot! Sorry. We won’t do that again”? No! There is no confession made and no forgiveness offered. Instead Jesus says, “Listen to me!” (which might be the best rule of all). Then he proceeds to explain that not all religious rules are created equal. Some rules are expendable or at least bendable. Some are central to our well-being or to the well-being of others. This, then, is the heart of the conversation: what is central to God’s mandate for how we are to live in this world and what is not?
I know I frequently mention how Martin Luther described the Bible as “the cradle of Christ,” but I think it bears repeating. Although all Scripture informs our faith, some parts of the cradle are closer to the Baby than others. Not every Bible verse carries equal weight. Ever wonder why we stand up when the Gospel lesson is being read? It’s because the Gospels touch the Baby directly —they describe the teachings and the life of Christ. We do not stand for readings from, for example, the book of Deuteronomy, even though some of God’s good news is contained there also. The tricky part of reading the Bible with the proper weight assigned is discerning what parts of Scripture are near the Baby and what parts are peripheral. A good rule of thumb is to see what gets repeated attention and what gets only a momentary mention. Spoiler alert: caring for the widows and orphans, for poor people and for those who are oppressed permeate all of Scripture. If you cut out all rules about planting two different kinds of seed in your field or whether or not it is OK to eat shellfish, or if you should shave your beard, you’d just have a few scissor marks in your Bible. But if you were to cut out all the references to lifting up the poor and vulnerable from your Bible, there would be so nothing but shreds left of the book, and it would simply fall apart.
Today’s Gospel lesson from Mark consists of a core theme, which, if the Bible is the cradle of Christ, definitely touches the Baby. It is the Baby Jesus himself (all grown up now), who announces in both words and actions that Biblical teachings dealing with purity are less central to God’s heart than those about relationships. Jesus is concerned about faithful people refraining from slandering each other, or becoming envious or deceitful or greedy. Notice how these sins parallel the original 10 Commandments? You shall not bear false witness, you shall not covet your neighbors stuff, and so on? You see, Jesus isn’t throwing out the Jewish laws, he’s simply underlining which ones take priority. Jesus reiterates the importance of following rules that preserve and bolster our relationships with God and the rest of creation. The rules that matter most, Jesus argues, are not the purity rituals and traditions about washing pots, but acts of mercy, deliberate efforts to be an inclusive community that serves—rather than dominates—others.
I think the moral of this story of Jesus is that if we err, we should try to err on the side of love and compassion, not one the side of guilt or shame or fear. When there is fear and shame in a relationship or a religion, it tends to cast out love. If we do what we do out of a sense of obligation or fear or to try to prove ourselves worthy, we are slaves to expectations—our own expectations of who God is and what God demands, or expectations that we or others have for what Christian conduct looks like. It’s important to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing, the thing which the entire book of James repeats over and over (as we shall hear in the coming weeks), is to pay attention to our hearts and to purify them, rather than devoting our energy, enthusiasm, and time to following human traditions and rituals down to the letter.
I think the moral of this story of Jesus is that if we err, we should try to err on the side of love and compassion, not one the side of guilt or shame or fear.
In James’ letter to the twelve churches he served, James claims the highest of all the laws—the one he calls “the perfect law”—is the “law of liberty.” In a different church letter, one that St. Paul writes to the Galatian Christians, he proclaims: “For freedom Christ has set you free.” Both of these teachers make it clear that the Christian religion is not all about the rules. Being Christian is all about Jesus! Specifically, it is about Jesus embracing us and loosing the ties that keep us bound. It’s about Jesus liberating us to be creative and joyful in our embodying the things that make for true religion, and forgiving us when we miss the mark. It’s about Jesus empowering us to get up again tomorrow and try again, differently.
When we guard the words that come from our mouths, when we strive for justice and peace in all the world, when we deliberately put our time and our budgets into cultivating loving relationships—with God, with ourselves, with other people, and with all of creation—the importance of strict purity codes recedes. (For the record, I still think it’s a good idea wash your hands before you eat.) But the main thing that Jesus was about, and the main thing Jesus calls us to be about, is love. We are not created or called to trudge through doing what we imagine is required to keep us from outer darkness forever. Created in God’s own image, we are designed to create, to care, to lift up, to share, and to serve.
When we experience the joy of being loved and trusted in our relationships, we become more loving and trustworthy. And when we find ourselves liberated and uplifted, we want others to feel liberated and uplifted too. We express our faith best by treating others the way God has treated us—by respecting and honoring ourselves, God, and all of God’s world. The law of liberty, the living out of Jesus’ promise that the truth will set us free, fills us up so that we are able to live generous, deep, and abundant lives, not because we are afraid, but because we are beloved.
Let us therefore be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.
~Pastor Susan Schneider