One day some Pharisees and scribes arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples failed to follow the Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by ancient tradition. Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many of their traditions —such as ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.”
Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,
‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is false, for they teach human ideas as commands from God.’ Then he said, “You ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition. You sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. You cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.”
Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. “All of you listen and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.”
Then Jesus went into a house to get away from the crowd, and his disciples asked him what he meant by the parable he had just used. “Don’t you understand either?” he asked. “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.)
And then he added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.”Mark 7:1-23
To begin today, since we’ve been preaching through Mark’s gospel for some time now and will continue through Lent and Easter, it’s important and helpful for us to us to get to know Mark, the author of this work, the one through whose eyes we see Jesus. We first meet Mark in the Bible in an interesting situation even before he wrote this Gospel.
We first find him in the Book of Acts, chapter 12, the third time the Apostle Peter was imprisoned. This imprisonment would have ended in his death – except that an angel intervened. It’s a great story to read. An angel awakens a sleeping Peter who quickly rises and leaves his jail cell, wandering past the guards and through an iron gate that mysteriously opens by itself. Peter thought it a dream until the angel disappeared and he’s left in the middle of the street. What to do now? Where to go? He runs to the only place he can think of, pounding on the door, pleading to be let in. A slave girl named Rhoda recognizes his voice. He is well known to this entire household.
The fledgling church met in this house many times for prayer. The owner of this large two-story house within the walls of Jerusalem is named Mary.
Her son is John Mark, the author of this Gospel, who grew up in truly extraordinary circumstances. Mark was a cousin of Barnabas, one of the first missionaries of the early church. The name Barnabas means ‘son of encouragement’, or ‘helper’, and the Bible’s Barnabas recognizes and encourages the work that God does in a person’s life. His early experiences of following Jesus changed his life forever. Mark follows suit.
The early church fathers agreed that Mark wrote his Gospel while he was a companion of Peter, and that Mark’s Gospel is in a sense a memoir of Peter’s remembrances. So there is an immediacy and sense of presence within Mark’s writing unique to this Gospel account.
Mark acts as a mirror, reflecting the meaning of Jesus’ ministry in ways deeper than words. In remarkable ways Mark teaches us how to listen to the very voice of Jesus. Mark never mentions his connections; in fact he never even mentions his own name. When we listen to this Gospel, we place ourselves at the feet of one of Jesus’ closest earthly companions.
The conversations we hear from Mark are not for our ears only, they are also for our hearts and our living. This particularly applies to our passage today. There is much more than a back and forth dialogue going on here.
It’s easiest to start with the punch line: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Jesus’ dialogue with these Pharisees is focused on one issue, far deeper than diet alone. The challenge is not about particular details of purity laws of what is to be eaten, in that “purity” might mean keeping your distance from unclean persons or types of food. What defiles us are things that we do or say, not things that we touch or eat.
Jesus’ basic point is that purity laws, including food laws, don’t actually address the real human problem, and that is what the kingdom of God is all about.
So in this teaching Jesus brings the scriptures and the whole covenant with Israel to fulfillment. The Hebrew scriptures speak of purity and sets rules as signposts to it. Jesus takes this one step further.
Think of it this way; when you arrive at your destination from traveling, you don’t need the signposts any more, not because they are useless but precisely because they were correct. The way of purity is a journey, not a destination, and purity of heart is far more important than any signpost, and more than something that no dietitian could ever cook up.
So with all of this I have two very different stories to share what this means for us. One reflects the positive abilities of people to live free and fair according to the gift of God’s grace for all of us; the other is a deeper story that injects another level of insight into who we are and how we are motivated to act, even in ways in which we are unaware… a revealing story that reminds us to examine our hearts for the deepest intentions within.
In the north of the Netherlands there is a small village which, a few years ago, drew international media attention. As part of an experiment sponsored by the European Union in the early 2000’s, the village of Makkinga took a radical step: they removed all traffic signs. Down came the directional signs, speed limits, stop signs, parking indicators; even the lines in the streets were removed. All that remained were signs indicating the names of the streets and a sign at the entrance to the village declaring that the town was “verkeersbordvrij” (free of traffic signs). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SaLhbbtmlE
What were they thinking? Why this apparent libertarian insanity? Well, Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic expert and one of the project’s co-founders put it this way: “The many rules we have strip us of a most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We are losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior. The greater the number of regulations, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”
In the right context, he believed, allowing drivers a significantly greater degree of liberty in determining their driving habits would also heighten their sense of responsibility for road safety, increasing their consideration for others sharing the road with them.
The results? A lower average traffic speed compared to when the signs were up, and a dramatic decline in traffic accidents.
Some other larger towns in Holland and around Europe followed suit. It’s now, as I understand it, part of the repertoire of urban planners, pretty much world-wide, (called “Shared Space”.)
That’s one case-study predicated on the premise of people’s ability to live without prescribed rules and to benefit from it. It is surely a limited sample and perhaps paints an all-too rosy picture of human nature, but there it is.
Now, here’s another story of a different sort, one that peers down deeper into our individual selves, examining parts of ourselves that we are not even fully aware, from inside us that gives goodness to the lives of others.
It’s a story from John Shea, a Catholic priest from Chicago and one of the best story tellers- ever…. This one goes way back, my guess to the 1950’s, and peers deeper into the human soul than we usually look.
“Every night, when my father came home from work, he would do the same thing. I was six and every night I watched him.
We lived on the second floor of a two flat in Chicago. I could hear him coming up the stairs before I could see him. When he came through the door, I was there. He would pat me on my crew-cut, take off his hat and plop it on my head.
It would slide forward over my eyes and sideways over my ears. All this was done while he was walking, while he was making his way back toward the bedroom, while I was following, pushing my hat back to see.
My father was a policeman. He carried a gun in a holster at his hip. It was not slung low like the cowboy gunslingers in the serials I saw at the West End Theater on Saturday mornings. It rode waist high. Once, as we were walking toward the bedroom, I asked him if he could draw fast enough with the gun that high.
“It’s not like that,” he said.
On the top shelf of the closet in my mother and father’s bedroom was a wooden safe. My father had built it to size and it was a snug fit, perfect height and perfect depth. On the shelf next to the safe was the key. With his back to me, my father would open the closet door, take the key off the shelf, and open the safe. Then he would take off his belt and holster and take the gun out of the holster. The holster and belt would be rolled up and stuffed way back in the safe.
Then he would open up the cylinder of the gun. The bullets would slide out into his free hand. He would put the bullets in a dish that was inside the safe. I could hear them clinking as they rolled and settled into place. Then he would put the gun in the safe, lock it and put the key on the shelf. This is what he would do every night after he came home- and as I watched.
One night, after he had put the bullets in the dish, he turned and walked over to me. He was holding the gun by the barrel. Without saying anything he offered me the handle. I took it. Its heaviness surprised me. My arm fell to my side. I quickly heaved my arm up. It was all I could do to hold it upright. My father took it out of my hand, opened the cylinder and rolled it.
“This is where the bullets go.” He said. ”When you pull the trigger, the chambers move.”
“Do you want to play with it?” He finally said.
He gave me the gun. “Don’t pull the trigger.”
I went to the window and pointed the gun at the two-flat next door.
I looked at my father. He was watching me, but he said nothing.
I went over to the bed, hid behind it, then popped up and aimed.
My father said nothing.
I put the gun in my pocket and jerked it out. Fast draw. My father said nothing.
I put the gun in my belt and pulled it out. Faster draw.
My father said nothing.
I laid on the floor and took aim. Gunshot sounds came out of my mouth. ”Pow, pow!”
My father said, “Are you done?”
I nodded and handed him the gun. He turned and went to the safe. As he was locking the safe, with his back to me, he said, “There – now you don’t have to be figuring out how to get at it all the time.”
As John Shea continues to tell the story; “His words stunned me. It wasn’t because they were critical or unkind. They were not. In fact, they were said in a completely matter-of-fact voice. There was no judgment in what he said. There was something far more shocking than judgment. There was truth.
He was right. I was figuring out how to get the gun. But until he said it, I didn’t know that was what I was doing. I didn’t know that my watching was really spying. I was ‘casing’ the closet for a future raid, but I didn’t know it. He knew me before I knew myself, and better, and he gently showed me to myself.
As far as I remember, that was the first time I realized that there was more going on in me than I knew. Of course, it was not the last time.
Often times the motivations for what people do are unconscious. They may not intentionally be wicked; they can be pitiful, selfish or just plain stupid. But still, they can unfold into dangerous actions.
Like the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once said, “One does not become enlightened by entertaining figures of light, but by making the darkness visible.”
What was Socrates’ motto? “Know Thyself.”
When Jesus spoke to the Pharisees and scribes about their purity laws, he looked at them with the eyes of love; with deeper understanding and compassion than they knew. He didn’t yell at them. (Why do people yell, anyway?) He addressed their inner journey, one that they had dismissed as irrelevant, even incomprehensible. Jesus knew that the law of love can be threatening but is ultimately liberating.
Jesus hopes to walk with us too, to open our eyes, our hearts and minds to God’s goodness all around, in friend and neighbor, in foe and stranger. God’s goodness is enough to rely on, isn’t it?
Maybe we can start by understanding ourselves better, seeing ourselves through the eyes of God in Jesus, and letting that understanding reach out to others. Amen.