September 2, 2012
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
One of the difficulties of reading Mark 7 is that unless you’re inside the Jewish world or have a great understanding of such, you simply won’t get the point of today’s message from Jesus. Mark, it would seem, knows this, which is why he’s explained to some readers something which, if they were Jewish, they wouldn’t have needed to have it spelled out in the manner in which Mark did. Most of the time in the gospels, the Pharisees come off as petty legalists who oppose Jesus -- apparently because he refuses to honor or abide by their strict traditions, but actually because they see him as calling for a new order that threatens their standing as religious guides.
The present reading is a case in point. A group of Pharisees, along with some scribes, notices Jesus' disciples eating without having first performed certain ritual hand washing. So they ask him, in front of others, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" Their question seems designed to embarrass Jesus in public and demonstrate that he's not qualified to teach others about religion. Jesus responds by calling the Pharisees hypocrites, using a verse from Isaiah and one of the Ten Commandments to illustrate how far from righteousness they are.
The Pharisees' question seems limited to the hand-washing ritual, but Jesus expands his response to include kosher foods as well. On the surface, at least, it appears that Jesus doesn't put much stock in keeping kosher, for he says to the crowd, "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." Later, alone with his disciples, he elaborates, saying, "Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?"
Clearly the shout out here is that ritual and dietary practices that symbolize holy living cannot be a substitute for actually living a holy life. In fact, Jesus says that quite plainly when he declares that defilement comes from the human heart, not from what passes through the digestive tract.
Would Jesus, who had been raised in a Jewish household, whose custom was to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath, and who once declared, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel", actually tell his fellow Jews that keeping kosher was not worth the effort?
His comment about all foods being clean is really an example of taking something from the life of Jesus and applying it in a different context. Although Christianity began within the Jewish community, by the time Mark wrote his gospel, it had expanded well beyond Jews into the Gentile world. The early church had to wrestle with the issue of how much of Jewish practice was to be required of Gentile Christians, and what they came up with was not much. In fact, kosher practices sometimes made it difficult for table fellowship to happen in the early church when both Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles were present.
Jesus wasn't out to "kill" kosher practices, but instead, he identified what is truly kosher. And what is truly kosher (as Leviticus 20:25 makes clear) is to be holy to the Lord, set apart for God's purposes. However, rejection of kosher rules and other purification rituals takes away the observable outward markers that separate Jews from their Gentile neighbors. A Jewish teacher might insist that the moral virtues in Jesus' list are just as important as kosher rules and that both are central to Jewish identity. External rules remind Jews that they are different from other nations. But, this is just the point. Jesus wanted to eliminate the barrios and obstacles put up by the Jewish leaders and elite of the day, and bring God’s saving grace to everyone.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be distinguished from the general population by what we eat, but be distinguished by how we live. And regarding being distinguished by how we live, recall that Jesus said the great commandment is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." In other words, we shouldn't restrict our commitment to God to only some parts of our lives, but rather let it permeate our being.
The question of the Pharisees was about purity; but the answer Jesus gave was about people obeying human traditions rather than God’s word. Ritual hand washing shouldn't be separated from the holiness it symbolizes. Keeping religious dietary laws shouldn't be separated from the sense of being set apart to live as God's people. Who we are at church shouldn't be separated from who we are at work, which shouldn't be separated from who we are at home and during leisure pursuits. With the right kind of living, we find worshipful rituals, religious dietary practices and attendance at church can be deeply moving and meaningful practices. That is not to say that in these various and different activities that we will not act differently during these times. We are sure to act differently, but we should do so without separating who we are as Christians or Catholics.
Keeping precepts – an external act – is indicative of internal conformity to God. Not keeping precepts is indicative of a ruptured relationship with God and results in the kinds of behaviors Jesus mentions at the end of today’s Gospel.
These hurtful and destructive behaviors all come from within people, from their hearts. The central teaching theme is the question of where do our hearts lie? Jesus teaches that observance of the law and tradition is not an end in itself, but an indication of where the heart lies. The charge that Jesus levels against the Pharisees and legal experts is that, by teaching as fundamental law what is in fact only human custom rather than divine revelation, they are guilty of hypocrisy. They are claiming to be teachers of God’s law, but in fact they are only teaching human traditions that have not come from God.
Part of the difficulty here is that some Christians have grown up knowing there is a long-standing debate in Christian churches about the relative place and value of ‘Scripture’ and ‘Tradition’. We are in danger, if we are not careful, of hearing this story with this debate in mind. The debate has usually been between Catholics and Protestants. As Catholics, of course, we hold that ‘Tradition’ handed down from the Apostles and many Church fathers is inspired by the Holy Spirit. As Jesus was trying to teach then, is just as important now, that we are careful to identify those ‘traditions’ of human making and those ‘Traditions’ we know in faith are of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus calls these Pharisees and scribes hypocrites because they keep external observances but their hearts are far from righteousness. Jesus decries this hypocrisy, this hiding behind an external conformity while neglecting the real work – turning to God. God is not a distant God, keeping track of our conformity to myriad external laws and regulations, but a God who is close to us.
In the reading today from James, we see many ‘rules’ as it were, in how to live our lives. In actuality, they are not ‘rules’ at all, but guiding principles that St. James was trying to give us to live in a way that would stand up to the standard Jesus is implying in the Gospel of Mark. All the things that are listed at the end of today’s Gospel reading, are sins of the heart. If you were to read them again, you can see that all that were listed there were sins of selfishness. Sins of not putting yourself right, not only with God, but with the person you committed these sins with or against. This is what Jesus means.
I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon that this Gospel should be taken to heart, and it is true. We do not lay down a myriad of laws, as it were, at least not more than God already has. We simply look at the actions of a person and determine if the person is living as Jesus is trying to tell us in today’s Gospel, or if the person is living as the Pharisees he addressed. When people come to confession with me, I will frequently ask a question that seems a bit unsettling to some; especially if they come from a more stern Christian background. I ask them, “What was your intention during this action?” Many will stop for a moment as if it were a trick question. It’s not. I liken it to a Jesus question. What was in your heart when you committed this act you think is a sin? As Universal Catholics we don’t believe that every action or even lifestyle is a sin, only the possible motives behind it.
This is why, if a couple comes to me asking for a baptism of their child, I have little concern for the parents background really. Whatever life the parents are leading or may have lead in the past, is not the error of the child. When a couple come to me for a wedding and one or both of them are divorced; did they enter into their first marriages never intending to live out their lives together, or did something in life happen to come to this result? Are you trying to commit an abomination against God if as a Homosexual you fall in love as if to do so intentionally to anger God, as if that would actually anger Him anyway; or is it something you are predisposed genetically to do?
The point Jesus made then and makes now, is simple. Committing acts of selfishness or intention of hurt toward another is truly bad. But committing acts without bad intention, is a motive of a pure heart simply trying to be the best human God created you to be.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.