A lot more than food here!
Week of Sunday August 30
Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and 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.) 5So 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?' 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,"This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines." 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.' 9 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, "Honour your father and your mother"; and, "Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die." 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, "Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban" (that is, an offering to God)- 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.' 14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.' 17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?' (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'
On the surface, this week's reading seems obvious.
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?' (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 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.'
Simply put, we don't have to worry about food laws. (Although, from Romans 14, we would not let what we eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.)
Actually, there's a whole lot more than food involved here. Food laws, and purity laws, seem in the "weird category" for us C21 Australia. They are not part of our world. However, what food laws were really about, is very much part of our world. When we see what Mark and Jesus were talking about, which is not just food, we can see they are talking to us.
This Sunday in Australia is called Refugee and Migrant Sunday. It's an important theme in my congregation. We are composed of migrants, refugees, and overseas students. The congregation has worked hard to support refugee families, and faced the collisions of culture, and the confrontations with our own xenophobias, which inevitably follow.
We will begin our service playing Six Degrees of Separation. This will be fun, because my Uncle and Auntie once played host to the Queen, and my sister the scholar was once presented to the President of India. My daughter's best friend is related to Kofie Annan. We also have a couple of globe trotting business people, who know people.
Then we will look at the photo of a refugee child in Sudan, and discover that we are only 2 degrees separated from her.
And we will reflect, theologically, if maybe our faith says we are really only one degree separated from everyone. We are all God's people.
I'll follow this up in the sermon. What you are reading here, is Draft no. 2.
Have you ever listened to a conversation... let's say there's a big argument in a church council meeting over giving the youth group leader a key to the hall. Have you ever wondered why that was such a big deal... and then later realised it was all about something else... like who owns the crockery in the kitchen?
Jesus argument with the Pharisees and Scribes, this week, is something like that. The stuff on the surface is not really the issue.
John Petty says
Purity practices, such as ritual cleansings, were important cultural markers. Every culture has them. They are how we know who belongs and who doesn't, who is in and who is out.
Now if that's true, we can see that in today's readings, Jesus is talking about something very close to our hearts. We like to know who is in, and who is out. It helps us make sense of our world. It helps us set boundaries and keep things under control. It helps us keep ownership of what's ours.
What would happen... if we let just anyone come up the front in our church, and serve communion... ?
What would happen if we let just anyone... into the kitchen over at the Op Shop? As we all know, there are very good safety reasons to keep the children out of the kitchen. There is also good reason to think that allowing some of our visitors into the kitchen, would trigger a visit from the council health inspector!
Do you see a distinction? Some boundaries which we establish, are based on safety. To be more precise, they are based on utility; that is, what will enable us to function effectively, and safely and efficiently.
From the position of utility, giving everyone a key to the church is generally not a good idea. But sometimes, in some churches, not here of course, people who need a key, don't get one, simply because of prejudice. They are female, or black, or a new-comer, or too young. Or maybe three years ago, they hurt the feelings of a significant somebody in the congregation.
And in that same congregation, not ours, of course, there are some people who have keys, not because they need them, but just because they are part of the A-Team.
So is it true?
Are all those food laws just about who's in, and who's out?
I don't think it's "just" that simple. Food and purity laws were people's response to God, at a certain time in history. They would have been influenced by many issues. We can see there might be very sensible- remember that word utility- reasons behind some of them. In Leviticus 14 for example, there is a detailed set of laws about how to handle mildew on the walls of your house. It actually makes good sense, health-wise, and has been attributed to God's decree.
They were also, sincerely and diligently followed, as a part of people's devotion to God. We're down on the Pharisees, but inmany ways they were ordinary lay folk, who were seriously trying to do the right thing by God.
Anyway, I read a longish article about it all by the scholar Jerome Neyrey called Readers guide to clean/unclean, pure/polluted, and holy/profane: the idea and system of purity. And it's clear, over and over again:
- The positive labels ("holy," "clean," and "pure") and the negative ones ("profane," "unclean," and "polluted") are pervasive through the Christian scriptures and the literature of second-temple Judaism. They serve, moreover, as potent weapons which can include or exclude.... (How do you like that? ... potent weapons...)
- "purity" is an abstract code word for what is culturally acceptable...
- the language of "clean" and "unclean" tended to differentiate one sect from another....
What fits into our world in a way we like, is holy and clean. What doesn't fit is unholy, and unclean...
This is beginning to sound like a theology lecture! But I'm emphasizing it because really, the arguments the people had about Jesus' disciples "defiled hands" were about who was "in with God," and who was a bad person. If they were "in with God," they were one of us, and if they were bad, we could ignore them, and do and say what we liked about them.
People didn't like Jesus. They wanted to prove he was bad, so they could ignore him, and remove him.
If we understand what's going on beneath the surface, then we can go back and paraphrase Jesus' words at the end of today's reading. We could make them about another subject that communicated more clearly to us what was going on. Something like this:
Jesus called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: it's not what a person wears that matters, what's important is the clothing of their heart.' When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever clothes a person say nothing about their heart? They can change their clothes tomorrow? (Thus he declared you can't read a book by its cover.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that shows us who they are. 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 show us the real person.'
These purity laws were hugely important. Keeping them meant you belonged. You were God's person. Jesus said being God's person has nothing to do with whether we fit in with the "in" crowd. He says the scriptures and traditions being quoted by the pharisees and scribes were wrong. Everyone is God's person.
Do you remember story of Jesus feeding the 5,000? Very loosely, Mark uses it to show Jesus is God's person who has come to all the Jewish people of God. That story is in Mark chapter 6.
Today, we are reading Mark chapter 7.
In chapter 8, we will read the feeding of the 5,000 all over again... except it gets changed, to the feeding of the 4,000, and it's clear that Mark is saying Jesus is God's person who has come to all the Gentile people of God. Jesus is for everyone.
You can see what we said in our game of the six degrees of separation is true. Jesus is saying the same thing to us: There is no separation, no "ins" and "outs." We are all God's people.
This reading is for us. We are all visitors here. We are all newcomers. We are refugees, and migrants. We are all travelers. We will all leave. None of us own this place.
On Fridays, a whole range of people come into the Op Shop. Some of them are a bit strange. Some of them, are just Dealers, buying on the cheap to take our stuff and sell it at huge profit in their own shop. And some of them, well dressed, are without jobs, at risk of losing their home, and very hungry.
They and we, are all people of God. Just like the slightly different people who sometimes arrive here on Sunday mornings. There is only one reason to distinguish them from any other person at worship. That is on the basis of what comes out of their heart. And then, sometimes, we need to take steps to keep this a safe place, not to exclude them and cut them off, but just to keep the place safe.
Mark listed, not as the definitive list, but as examples, these things:
... fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
These are dangerous things. They destroy people, and churches. And we might add other things.
And that's where this draft ends. I'm going to consider some in-house stuff we need to deal with. That's not for posting here.
Grace and Peace
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!