(a sermon for September 2, 2018, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
It’s a question that gets asked around a great many dinner tables, especially those with children: “Did you wash your hands?” And very often – most especially when children are involved – the question is answered a loud and heavy sigh, not to mention the occasional stamping of feet as one or more of said children slump out of their chairs to return to the bathroom sink. Then, inevitably, Dad and Mom will themselves sigh, hoping that a bar of soap and some running water might actually be involved in the process this time around, while wistfully longing for that day when their children will at last know and understand that washing up is not only a matter of cleanliness, it’s also about good manners!
Well, the question might have been similar, but it was a different kind of scenario in our text for this morning; for when the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Jesus to confront him with the question of why his disciples were eating “with defiled hands, that is, without washing them,” they were not concerned with the disciples’ lack of table manners, nor even, for that matter, their cleanliness per se. In truth, theirs was more of a concern about matters of law and tradition. What for you and I would have been a minor breach of etiquette and at worst, an unsanitary way of eating was in fact for many in Jesus’ time a pressing religious issue. Hand washing, you see, struck right at the heart of what, at least for the Pharisees and the learned scribes, was the right way to do religion.
Let me give you a little background on this. The Jews believed, of course, that the written law contained in the first five books of Hebrew Scripture – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, also known collectively as the Torah – was absolutely binding. But in addition to the Torah was also an oral tradition of policies, statutes and codes that rose up over the generations for the sole purpose of ensuring the complete observance of the written law. Now, over the course of many generations, some of this got written down in what is called the Mishnah and the Talmud, but by Jesus’ time, much of it had become so convoluted, confusing and contradictory that it never actually got written down, but had become kind of assumed in the tradition of Jewish life. In other words, a great many things were done simply because that’s the way they always had been done; and such traditions were known among learned Jews as the “tradition of the elders.”
Washing one’s hands before eating was one such tradition, as was the physical act of washing food and utensils. What we need to understand, however, is that though cleanliness and health must certainly have entered into such a tradition, ultimately it wasn’t really about that at all. This was about consecration: the ceremonial ritual of thanksgiving before and after a meal; a simple act of piety that over time and quite literally across generation had become pretty much a mindless ritual and yet a rigid regulation among the Jews.
So you see, by the time of Jesus’ ministry, this business of the “tradition of the elders” had become quite a controversy amongst the religious leadership of the day. On the one hand, there were the Sadducees who rejected the notion that any oral code was binding to them; only law which is written in the Torah or the Talmud, they said, would be the law they would obey. The Pharisees, on the other hand, placed oral code as of equal importance to written law; and since, as scripture so often reminds us, the Pharisees were strict legalists, they believed that only by following each and every law, code and tradition to the letter could one ever hope to gain the acceptance and salvation of God!
So as far as the Pharisees were concerned, for Jesus and his disciples not to wash their hands before eating was nothing less than a direct assault upon the law, tradition and God; and they certainly were not going to let that pass! “Why do your disciples flout the rules,” (The Message) showing up for meals this way, they asked Jesus. Who do you think you are, Jesus, that you would blatantly ignore the traditions of the elders? Don’t you know that those traditions are there for a reason? You’re undermining our authority, Jesus; how are we supposed to maintain order and discipline in the temple if you are out here eating like pigs and tossing our time honored traditions to the four winds!
Now, as Mark tells this story it doesn’t say, exactly, but at this moment you can almost see a wry smile cross Jesus’ lips, a recognition that the Pharisees had once again revealed their true colors for all to see. “Isaiah was right about frauds like you,” he said. Remember what Isaiah said; he said, “’This people honors me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!”
In other words, you… you Pharisees, there is a vast difference between following the precepts of God, and what you’re doing, which is being fashionably, politically, socially or even religiously correct! And Jesus lays it all out before them: that eating dirty food with dirty hands is ultimately not what makes a person unclean, but that which is already inside the human heart and comes forth that defiles; what’s truly dirty is found in the acts and attitudes that degrade one’s self, others and God! When it comes to true consecration, the heart of the matter is not whether you tend to the “details” of religious tradition, but rather in the ways that you tend to your life before God; it’s not focusing on the minutiae of “how things are supposed to be done,” but rather on working purposefully to make everything you do, every part of your life an act of faith!
The Pharisees were bent on religious perfection; on doing everything correctly and according to tradition, ever and always maintaining the status quo; but at the end of the day, that was wholly the sum and substance of it. Ultimately, the Pharisee’s legalism had very little to do with being faithful to God, and Jesus knew it: “You abandon the commandment of God,” – “ditching God’s command,” is how The Message puts it – letting go of all these timeless and eternal precepts that speak of how God would have you live, all for the sake of clinging to human tradition and passing religious fashion!
Well… I suspect that very, very few of us considered the theological aspects of washing up before church this morning, but nonetheless as we read this passage of Mark’s gospel this morning there’s a relevant question being put to you and me: Are we faithful, or just religious? Indeed, taking in mind that this whole conversation about hand washing is really about consecration and worshipfulness, then it can’t help but confront us about the way we prepare and practice our worship as well.
Think about this with me for a moment. Every Sunday morning, or nearly every Sunday, we come to church: we sing the songs, we pray the prayers, we receive communion as per tradition on the first Sunday of every month; yes, we do all these things, but the question is how do we do them, and why? We are very quick to condemn the Pharisees for their shallowness of true faith; but I would submit to you today that you and I run the same risk of becoming more caught up in the trappings and performance of “religion” than aspiring to a life of faith!
Or, to put it another way, (and here’s a quote that dates me!) in the words of George Burns in his role as the Almighty in the “Oh, God” movies back in the seventies (!): Religion is easy; faith is hard.
The truth is, it’s easy, really, at least in practice to come here and worship each week. And we of the congregational tradition tend to keep things pretty simple: we know when to sit and when to stand, when to sing, when to stay quiet and when to pray; we know we’re supposed to bow our heads when the minister says “let us pray.” Most of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart and can rattle it off with nary a thought. But what is not so easy is letting that ancient prayer become your words of prayer and praising unto the Lord; what is more difficult for us is to allow prayer and devotion to become a true discipline in our lives, to the point where it governs the patterns of our very lives.
To take this analogy a bit further, economics and logistics aside, let’s be honest and say that it’s a fairly easy to put something in the offering plate each week; we all know when we’re to do it, and most of us, I suspect, already know how much we’ll give before we even get here. But it’s not so very easy to begin to view the entirety of our life and living – our skills, our ideas, even our daily calendars – as a matter of our own personal stewardship unto God.
And friends, it is relatively easy to nod our heads in quiet agreement when we speak in worship of things like loving one another, of being true disciples and “doers of the word.” But it is not so very easy when love and committed discipleship carries real weight in the decisions we make and the priorities we set!
There is a difference, you see, (as is pointed out elsewhere in scripture) between doing the word and merely hearing it; well, what Jesus reminds us here is that there is also a difference between truly “doing” the word and doing it by rote. True worship (and understand that I’m not just talking about this hour we spend together, but the whole of the Christian life), it comes from the heart. True worship is an act borne of faith, a response to the infinite blessings of God and focused on the desire to be strengthened, empowered and sent forth to be the hands, heart and feet of our Lord Jesus. When worship (of any kind) is done solely by the numbers, merely out of duty and “how it’s supposed to be,” well… that’s religion… not faith.
Don’t get me wrong here; there is a place for traditions, both oral and written. Liturgy and even ritual is important for us in the church. There are good reasons why we do things the way we do in worship (actually, we’re going to be talking a lot about that in the weeks to come!): to begin with, it places us in a common community with believers in this place and across the world; it gives us a historical and cultural context in which we can be unified as Christians. Tradition and liturgy serves to move us in the direction of heart-felt worship. But in and of itself, tradition is not the most important thing: if we do not keep our focus where it needs to be – that is, on God – there is a very real danger of our becoming a people with good habits, but without a good heart.
A Canadian pastor and counselor by the name of Alex Thomas says this very well; he says that the outward traditions and practices of a religious life are valuable to keep and can be quite helpful to us, but “when it comes right down to it, there are spiritual values that take precedence over those outward things if we are to be in any way Christ-like. Our spirituality,” Thomas goes on to say, “does not consist solely on keeping outward traditions and practices. The spiritual values such as love, kindness, tolerance, forgiveness, and the like, come from within. The heart of the matter is always a matter of the heart.”
So… do wash your hands! Do come to church; and do find some comfort in the traditions of which we are part here at East Church as the Church of Jesus Christ. Break the bread and share the cup this morning in just the same way we have done so many times before. And then come back next Sunday to worship again as a community of faith.
But don’t stop there.
Move from focusing on what we do to who we do it with. Check your heart as we come to this table. Move from the task and the ritual to its intent! Move in our communion, one with another and with God, to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
May our worship today be blessed, and may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry