The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17B)
Sunday, 2 September 2018
Lord of all power and night, who are the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in use true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
We are back in the world of the Gospel of Mark after spending a few weeks with John. Rather than a story told at some eighty years distance, we are living with an account in circulation a mere thirty years after the events it discusses. That’s closer than we are to Watergate. The passage we have for today hits upon two topics that are as fresh today as they were in Jesus’ time: how important is it for us to keep traditions and whether something in the external world that we might consume or wear or have or use can somehow separate us from God. They are basic questions that affect our daily lives and the choices we make. They are questions about what is truly important and how can we better live in relationship to God, as God is unfolding the Kingdom around us even now.
So, cards on the table. I am, somewhere deep down, a conservative person. I don’t like change, especially change for the sake of change, and I value traditions and institutions. In today’s political climate it is important to remember that this is an historic definition of conservatism, despite what party politics might tell you. At the same time, I recognise that this kind of conservatism is an establishment position, like the old Tory Party in Britain, and I can comfortably hold this view, especially my innate trust of institutions—that they have my interests at heart—because of my straight, white, male, Christian privilege. I have, therefore, at the same time, had to learn to be critical of this view, despite (or perhaps because of) how comfortably it suits me, you know, like one of my old tweed coats. I have, therefore, sympathy, with today’s lesson from Deuteronomy:
Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
God gave the people the law and the laws made sense in that time and in that place. They helped order the community, they helped people understand God’s wishes and desires for the people.
In Jesus’ time the Pharisees and other Jews continued to believe that this all made sense. As Mark tells us,
... the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.
The law has worked for generations, it has shaped their identity, and to them there was no reason to change things. Change represented giving in to the dominant Roman culture, possibly separating them from God. It is no surprise, therefore, that when Jesus came along, preaching a new set of divine priorities and seemingly overturning long cherished traditions, that the people might have balked. Mark tells us,
Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed .... And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?”
On the face of it, had we never heard of the Pharisees, this seems perfectly reasonable. We are, however, primed to react negatively to the Pharisees merely asking the question. Just saying the word “Pharisee” makes us think of hide-bound hypocrites, and yet, we must remember that many of them were just privileged and naturally conservative, naturally inclined to follow the traditions, not to make waves. Indeed, as we read in Romans, Paul (another innate conservative) believes it is important to follow some of the old traditions so as “never to put a stumbling block in front of a brother” (14:13), although he is clear (as Jesus is in today’s Gospel) that he knows and is “persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (14:14).
The Pharisees, then, are making a valid point, one supported by scripture. Jesus knows this and still he contradicts them. Jesus is no conservative, although he certainly was brought up with all the traditions and follows many of them. He understands them, in fact, in a way that is both profound and new; and the Good News that he brings doesn’t just overturn the traditions, scrap them, it brings us back to their very roots. Jesus is, therefore, a radical, in the very best sense of the term.
Jesus answers the Pharisees:
Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.
The Pharisees see the laws and traditions about eating and cleanliness as outward signs of inner purity. If you follow the laws outwardly, then you are revealing inner conformity to the will of God. This is a position familiar in many of the later Puritan traditions. Jesus does not accept this view. If outer conformity to tradition, to visible signs of honouring God and it is not mirrored internally, or demonstrated externally in other ways that reveal the love and justice of God, then those outward signs are hollow. There are merely social gestures that serve to maintain privilege and existing hierarchies without actually performing the neighbour love demanded by God.
Tradition is fine. It is important. It must, however, retain meaning, as we read in Deuteronomy:
Only take heed, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.
This is what Jesus is getting at in the second part of his message.
Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a [person].
He isn’t just making a list of sins for us to avoid. He is saying that our outer life must conform to our inner life and that our actions and thoughts need to have congruence, internal consistency. What (and how) we eat or dress and the like, these things are neutral in and of themselves. What matters is what we do with them, how we use them.
This is what is at the root of all those rules and laws. They are to help us conform our inner and outer lives so we may live authentically and harmoniously. When traditions work, it is wonderful. When they don’t we should not be afraid to question them, ask what is at the heart of the matter and use Jesus’ own methodology, his own hermenutical perspective, if you will, and look carefully at the whole, look to the Good News that God is even now undertaking to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, sent Jesus Christ to dwell among us and defeat death so we might be one with one another and with God. If we look critically at tradition, using our reason and Scripture—as we Anglicans are wont to do—then we are doing what God is calling us to do. We are engaging in the Christian life, congruently living our traditions, the things we have brought from the past that retain their root meaning and importance, spreading the love and justice called for in the Good News Christ brings.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
David Pendleton Okerhater, 1 September 2018
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume