Weekly Seeds: Live Love
Sunday, August 29, 2021
After Pentecost Year B
O God of lights, from whose word of truth we have been born as firstfruits of your creatures: make us quick to listen and slow to speak, that the word implanted in us may take root to nourish all our living, and that we may be blessed in our doing and fruitful in action. Amen.
Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
7 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they 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; 4 and 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.) 5 So 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?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
All readings for this Sunday:
Song of Solomon 2:8–13 and Psalm 45:1–2, 6–9
Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–9 and Psalm 15
Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
By Cheryl Lindsay
Every so often, I come across a reminder about handwashing. Sometimes, it’s a note in a public restroom that’s targeted toward employees. Other times, those admonitions stem from safety protocols associated with COVID-19. Remember, in the early months of the pandemic, we received regular reminders of how to behave in order to mitigate our risk of catching the virus. One of those precautions included washing our hands with hot water and soap for a minimum of 20 seconds. Public health officials demonstrated the proper technique during broadcasts of press conferences. There was even the suggestion that we’d sing the “Happy Birthday” song while washing so that we would easily reach the 20 seconds, believing that most of us would underestimate the time. All of a sudden, handwashing became vitally important not just for personal hygiene, but it also assumed a role in our communal commitments to loving our neighbor and protecting them against disease.
It reminds me that so many of the prohibitions, rules, and regulations found in the Old Testament law narratives probably arose from public and personal safety concerns. Is eating shellfish really an unclean act or was there an outbreak of disease associated with a bad batch of crustaceans? As James Dunn notes, “Impurity is not sin; to be impure was not wrong.” How does it reshape our understanding of those laws when we consider that many of them were not offering condemnation for sin but ways of addressing human conditions? Part of our study of the ancient text should be an exploration that asks: is this a lesson for all time, our time, or was it just for that time?
The Pharisees also lived in a particular time, and their response to their condition was to adopt a stricter adherence to the law than was common. In their zeal, they even added to the number of regulations as if the more than 600 found in the book of Leviticus weren’t challenging enough to follow. Embracing this created ethic also wasn’t sufficient for them, and as a result, the Pharisees used their power and position to impose their ethical commitment onto others. In their fixation on following the law and its enforcement, they missed the Person to whom the law points. This seems to be their fundamental struggle with Jesus. He keeps trying to show them Godself while they consistently question him about why he doesn’t do what they want, expect, or require.
The Pharisees want God in a box, neat and orderly. They resist the God who surprises with extraordinary grace, uncommon compassion, and liberating freedom. They don’t understand the God who did not intend to prescribe a set of rules in the first place. They reject the God who does not reject the ones they demean, deride, and denounce. Jesus presents the Holy One of Love and they want the Sovereign of law and order.
Perhaps that’s why when they gathered around him, their attention was arrested not by his teaching, healing, or mere presence. No, the religious leaders “noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.” Of course, their version of washing hands was more complicated than the recommendations we received due to the coronavirus. They are talking about ritual actions to render the actor clean or pure. But, those actions, as part of the law, were largely associated with life and leadership in the temple.
Holiness and purity are closely related, and breach of the holiness code is sin (e.g. Lev 19.8; 20.17; 22.9). And religious observance in a state of impurity is sin (e.g. Isa 6.7; 1 Enoch 5.4; Pss. Sol. 8.12-13). It can only be that impurity was regarded as undesirable, to be avoided as much as possible, and to be removed at the earliest opportunity. (James D. G. Gunn)
Being unclean was a condition that needed to be addressed, not a judgement on the worth and commitment of the person. The circumstances in which we find ourselves do not define who we are–they provide a condition that invites a response.
Who knows if the disciples were eating with “dirty” hands or not? That wasn’t the Pharisees’ concern, even if that was the initial point of the law they sought so desperately to impose that they missed an opportunity to commune with Jesus.
It’s worth noting that only the Pharisees and other religious leaders seemed to attract Jesus’ ire. With so-called sinners, the diseased and disabled, the old and the young, rich and poor, people of all genders, Jesus exhibited compassion and extended love and grace. Many of the encounters record Jesus interacting with people who fell short of God’s intention and promise, but only those “hypocrites” actively worked against Jesus’ purposes of redemption and restoration. That Jesus could not stand.
How often does the church pursue her own desires even at the expense of performing and participating in God’s will? How many of our faith communities have established our own set of purity codes, written or unwritten, that define what it requires to be accepted and acceptable in God’s gathered community? Why is it that so many people think they have to “get themselves together” before they would be welcomed in God’s house? How many people hide the fullness of who their Creator crafted them to be because the people that greet them at the door retract God’s extravagant welcome?
In the biblical narrative, creation comes first and the rules come much further down the chronological line. They were given during the Exodus story to a people who struggled with faithfully following God during a challenging time of uncertainty. The law supplied a framework for maintaining right relationship with God, with one another, and with themselves. (Jesus summarized all the law as loving God and your neighbor as yourself.) Why would the Pharisees think the list needed to be expanded while letting love diminish…when love is the entire point?
The Pharisees wrapped themselves up in an identity of their own creation:
At the time of Jesus and Paul, purity rules were fundamental identity markers. They functioned as parts of a wider politics of purity: different concerns over purity could have led different groups to different perceptions of Israel’s social boundaries, not only from an external point of view (for example, regarding the separation of Israel from other nations, stated by Lev 20:24-26), but also from an internal one (regarding the separation of a specific group from the rest of the people, the different grades of membership within a group, the rivalry between groups, etc.). (Rescio, Mara, and Luigi Walt)
Again, Dunn is helpful as we consider the importance of identity as a religious group for the Pharisees:
Where particular religious practices are integral to a group’s identity, even ‘minor ges- tures’ can become make-or-break points of division. And more weight should surely be given to the Pharisees’ very name, generally agreed to signify ‘separated ones’, and thus indicating a wider perception of the Pharisees as a group who defined themselves by their concern to keep themselves apart – a primarily purity concern.
A purity concern does not equate with a concern of God’s. Surely, there are those that God sets apart in terms of giving them a particular assignment to fulfill. The prophets present one example of this. But, this does not provide elevation or distance from the people; it garners a role within the people that, again, is rooted in God’s abundant love for God’s creation.
Jesus responds to the critique directly by taking their narrow concern and expanding it metaphorically to address their fundamental problem. The Exodus people had created an idol in the golden calf; the Pharisees have made an idol of their interpretation of the law as the prophecy of Isaiah warned: “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.” It has been entirely too easy for God’s people to create idols to worship. For some of our faith communities, it may be forms of worship that become idols, it may be the buildings in which we gather, or it may be images and expressions of patriotism. None of these things in and of themself are idolatrous, it’s our response and over-allegiance to them. It’s not what we take in, Jesus says, it’s what we put out.
We have the choice of response. We cannot always control our condition, but we determine our reaction to it. Jesus calls on us to respond from the heart…with love. We honor God when the words from our lips and the meditations of our hearts manifests in the actions of our lives. Our hearts are near to God when they are filled with love for God’s creation, including and especially our neighbor. Our worship is fruitful when we enter into loving, graceful, and hopeful communion with the Living God and not make worship an idol as we fixate on time, place, and style. We walk right when we’re more concerned with God’s will than with human defined doctrines.
Most of this passage reflects a conversation that Jesus had with the religious leaders and authorities, but his final and definitive words were for the crowd. We have noted before that Jesus regularly avoided the crowd, but here, he calls them back. It’s not enough that he sets the Pharisees straight and corrects their wrong teaching among them; Jesus doesn’t finish until he sets the people free from the bonds put in place by those asserting a human authority and will over them. I imagine there were probably Pharisees and scribes who were enlightened and transformed their teaching based on Jesus’ illuminating words. But, in breaking into humanity, Jesus bypassed religious authorities. No priest was needed to mediate his message; Jesus brought it directly to the people. Jesus invited them into a direct relationship with the Holy Love and liberated them from the expectations and limits of human tradition.
And that’s a gift for all time.
For further reflection:
“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” — Jane Austen “
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” — Barbara Kingsolver
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” — C.S. Lewis
A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (email@example.com), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
About Weekly Seeds
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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 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. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.