Psalm 15, Deuteronomy 4: 1-2,6-9, James 1: 17-end, Mark 7: 1-8,14-15,21-23
Imagine the scene.
It had been a long day for Jesus and the disciples, they’d been on their feet, walking in the sun, and they were tired, hungry and thirsty. Dinner in the local may have seemed like an excellent idea. It was a fine evening so they decided to take a table outside. They sat down and ordered their food. Peter and James were delayed, but were going to join them as soon as they could, so Jesus and the disciples, knowing what they liked, ordered for them. The meals arrived and they soon settled down to good food, conversation, fellowship and teaching by Jesus where they heard it best, around the table, sharing a meal. Peter and James arrived a few minutes later and as the food was already there, they were encouraged to tuck in whilst it was hot.
Soon after they started their meal the Pharisees, who had been at a nearby table, came over to say – ‘Hey, these followers of yours, they aren’t following the rules our elders taught us, they haven’t washed their hands!”
The meal was abruptly interrupted, but the teaching wasn’t.
I think it’s important here, as it is in other places in the Bible, not to paint the Pharisees in a negative light, and I don’t think that’s how Jesus viewed it either. He may well have been annoyed, but his response was teaching aimed at everyone not just the Pharisees.
When he responded, Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees’ beliefs or reject their important role in first century Judaism. The Jewish leaders who confront Jesus about questions of ritual purity (such as the washing of hands before eating) are not petty bureaucrats obsessed with nit picking Jesus and his followers. They are, instead, concerned that Jesus’ disciples do not demonstrate the correct respect for the tradition of the elders, since the ritual of hand washing was considered an integral part of Jewish faith and identity. With this and other references to the Pharisees in the Bible we must be careful not to condemn whole groups of people with religious traditions that differ from our own. Otherwise, we will be guilty, as others have been in the past, of prejudice and the same hardness of heart that Jesus urges us in this very passage to avoid.
Jesus takes the opportunity for a broad teaching moment. He gathers a crowd around him and says “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”. Everyone, not just the Pharisees, is perplexed by this declaration, Jesus is challenging a basic religious belief and tradition of the day. The disciples are also confused, and even ask him later in private what he means.
The Pharisees say the disciples hands are ‘defiled’ because they haven’t washed them, and Jesus uses the same word ‘defiled’ in his response. The use of this word and its translation from the Greek is helpful. The word ‘defile’ is translated from a Greek word, the adjective Koinos, which does not actually mean dirty or unhygienic, it means unclean in the sense of becoming ‘common’, or ‘ordinary’, to render unworthy to worship God. The Pharisees are saying that the disciples who haven’t washed their hands are ‘common’ and ‘unholy’ in God’s eyes. So what Jesus says in reply is that it is not the food that you put into your mouth and into your stomach (with clean or unclean hands) that is important to God, it is what comes out of your heart that God cares about. Jesus’s main point is that what really renders a person “unclean” and thus ‘unholy’ in God’s sight is what comes out of his or her heart or conscience. It is not what we eat, or how we eat, but what we do that really counts with God.
Tradition, such as religious ritual, isn’t a bad thing, and I don’t think Jesus is saying it is. It gives us comfort, structure and identity. Like the religious traditions of Christmas or Easter it can help us enter further into worship through different types of ritual and remembrance. The Israelites in the Exodus constantly reminded themselves of their traditions and rituals in order to keep hold of their identity and their sense of who they were as a community. Instead Jesus is warning us about the wrong kind of choices based on traditions which follow human-made assumptions or rules without considering things from the heart and conscience. Jesus is asking us to have a questioning heart.
Our challenge today is to recognize how we, like the Pharisees, misinterpret what is important to God. Do we look at the dirty fingernails of our homeless sisters and brothers and mentally distance ourselves from them? Do we ever hear a crying baby during worship and think to ourselves that they are a distraction, rather than the voice of a treasured member of our congregation? Do we meet a gay couple, or transgender person and ever think – they are different to me and therefore from a different church community to mine? How far do we, even on a subconscious level, find ourselves making assumptions about what is important and crucial to God in a way that might exclude some from our sanctuary and churches?
If we have a questioning heart, like Jesus is asking us to do, might we sometimes think differently?
Jesus talks a lot about the heart in this passage. At the time Mark wrote this gospel the heart wasn’t just about love, it was also believed to be the centre of our will and decision making. Today the heart still represents the essence of a person – the question of ‘what’s on your heart?’ is a far deeper question than ‘what’s on your mind?’ Jesus is saying that what matters to God, what produces good or evil, is inside of us, not on the outside. It comes from within us. A hardness of the heart, a lack of compassion towards others, making decisions without addressing our conscience, is what Jesus is saying is the root of the evil things that he lists. Christ urges us to examine our own hearts rather than our neighbours’ dirty hands.
But it can take a lot of courage to have a questioning heart. It can sometimes be a lonely place. It takes courage to take an alternative view, but with courage, speaking out from a place of conscience, can allow others to do the same, until soon you soon find you are not alone. As people of faith in a largely secular world, we know this position well. The message of today’s gospel is about a deeper truth. That deeper truth is that living out the heart of our religious traditions often calls us to be an alternative voice to the larger “world” of our society by choosing and living out right relationship: kindness over cruelty, compassion over condemnation.
As D H Lawrence once put it: “It is a fine thing to establish one's own religion in one's heart, not to be dependent on tradition and second-hand ideals. Life will seem to you, later, not a lesser, but a greater thing.”
Today’s Gospel encourages us to look again at how our daily habits and rituals (religious or not) encourage our awareness of God, our relationship with God, with each other, with loved ones and strangers alike, so that welcoming all into the sanctuary and to the table is at the forefront of our minds. From there, we welcome all and share nourishment, fellowship and teaching from Jesus where we hear it best, around his holy table, sharing a meal.
Amen. Rev Melanie Harrington