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Sunday, September 2, 2018 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
When we truly encounter Jesus—incarnate and ministering among us,
crucified and resurrected—our fireproof hearts catch fire,
and in following him we come to know
that obedience to God which is perfect freedom,
and we begin to find our way home.
The passage listed in your bulletin began with Mark 7:1, but as you noticed, I backed us up a bit to the end of chapter 6. I did this to help us remember where we are in this Gospel. Since we spent the entire summer season immersed in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, we have not heard from Mark in quite a while, and we need to get grounded again in this very fast-paced, few-words-wasted, account of the Jesus story.
One way we can reorient ourselves to Mark is to pay attention to the geography embedded in the text, for when we pay as much attention to the places as we do to the people, we see that much of Mark’s geography is theological geography, meaning even the places mentioned reveal something to us about God. For example, the two places mentioned in this particular encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees (Gennesaret and Jerusalem) already give us a head’s up that the tension level is beginning to rise.
Gennesaret: the place where Jesus and the disciples have just moored the boat and gotten out. Jerusalem: the city from whence the Pharisees and the scribes have traveled to catch up with Jesus and his disciples. Gennesaret: the home of a group of people who were not Jewish but primarily Gentile, a place traditionally considered the home of outsiders to the covenant. Jerusalem: the holiest place that existed for Jesus’ Jewish tradition, the place of the temple. Gennesaret: a land full of people who Mark claims immediately recognized Jesus as the healer. Jerusalem: a land full of the keepers of the tradition, those who cared deeply about their faithfulness to God and their fulfillment of the covenant. Gennesaret and Jerusalem: Simply by paying attention to the theological geography in the text, we can feel the tension rising.
Given this rising tension, perhaps we should not be all that surprised that Jesus, having come to Gennesaret, and the religious leaders, having come from Jerusalem, got into an argument. But my goodness, Jesus’ strong rebuke to the Pharisees’ seemingly innocuous question feels rather startling. Yet when we consider their question in context, as preacher Tom Long writes, we see that the religious leaders’ question was designed to be more of an accusation than it was an actual question.
Their choice of phrasing, according to Long, was roughly equivalent to me noticing when you aren’t here on a summer Sunday afternoon and then seeking you out to ask, “Why have you chosen to go to the jazz festival today instead of spending Sunday in church as the almighty God has commanded you to do?” If that were to happen, would you feel I was merely asking a question out of curiosity, or would you feel I was accusing you of unfaithfulness?
Clearly, “question as accusation” is how it hit Jesus. “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘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.’”
But even knowing the Pharisees came in hot still does not help us completely understand what all of the fuss about hand-washing was about. Part of our confusion emerges from the way our Christian tradition has always tended to flatten down the Pharisees into one-dimensional characters in the Gospel stories, into legalistic rule-keepers who have no texture, no nuance, no complexity.
Yet scholars today suggest that we need to rethink those stereotypes and that the Pharisees should be understood as more of a reform movement within first-century Jewish life. Their goal was to help ordinary people become more observant of the law in order to affirm and reinforce their Jewish identity (Cynthia Campbell, “Living by the Word,” 22 August 2006, p. 17).
We have to remember the setting in which they lived. The Jewish people lived in a culture that was inhospitable to their identity. Polytheistic religions and cults abounded. The Romans were the ones in charge and were always reminding the Jews of their lower ranking. In the middle of that cultural chaos, in the middle of that Roman domination, in the middle of that constant threat of syncretism, the Jewish people felt called to remain faithful to their one God, the God of their exodus, the one who took them from slavery and led them into freedom. They felt called to hold on to their unique identity as God’s chosen people.
Motivated by their desire for spiritual devotion and their desire to maintain their unique identity, the Pharisees began to adopt distinctive practices based on the law, concrete actions—both big and small—so that when the Jewish person performed that practice, their identity would be proclaimed and maintained (John Ortberg, “Pharisees Are Us,” Christian Century, 23 August 2003, p. 20).
Take today’s text as an example. In those days, washing one’s hands before a meal was not universally practiced. Frankly, it was not very convenient. Therefore, when a Jewish person washed his or her hands before eating, through that small action that person was saying to the world, “I am different.” He was doing something distinctly Jewish. She was keeping the tradition and maintaining the boundaries. He was remembering who he was. She was remembering to whom she belonged.
So the fact that the disciples did not wash their hands was significant to the religious leaders. It was significant to them that people who were Jewish were not acting Jewish in the ways they expected. It was significant to them that the markers of identity seemed to be fading in the background. It was significant to the religious leaders that the disciples of this Jesus were not keeping the tradition or maintaining the boundaries.
Frankly, I think some of us might understand where they were coming from. In a time of chaos or change, so often we also might feel it necessary to shore up the boundaries, to tighten up the rules, to be clear about who we are and who we are not and why that matters. Some of us might be able to understand why it felt significant to the Pharisees.
But apparently what felt significant to the Pharisees felt only irritating to Jesus. Jesus immediately went on the offensive, accusing them of hypocrisy, telling them that they cared more about appearance and tradition than they did about faithfulness and justice.
I wonder if Jesus had finally just become fed up with the fact that although sick people were being healed, demons were being exorcised, the oppressed were finally seeing visions of freedom, the deaf were starting to hear, God’s kingdom was literally coming near—even in the middle of all that life-changing, world-changing, transformative, and powerful ministry, all that the religious people wanted to talk about was that his disciples were not following all of the rules and obeying all of the traditions in the ways people expected.
He had stepped off the boat in Gennesaret and people were being healed merely by touching the hem of his garment. But what did the keepers of his tradition, the Pharisees, want to talk about? How the disciples weren’t following some of the rules. Jesus must have just gotten totally fed up with the dichotomy of priorities that he saw emerging.
Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, and all the religious leaders seem to care about is that he did it on the sabbath. Jesus touches a leper and makes him whole; he brings a dead girl back to life; a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years touches Jesus’ cloak and is finally made well—and all the religious people seem to care about is that Jesus broke the rules, transgressed the boundaries. You are not supposed touch lepers, dead people, or bleeding women.
Jesus eats with tax collectors and other known sinners, bringing them to a new way of life, a new way of being, bringing them to faithfulness and discipleship, and all he hears from the other religious leaders is how he spends time with the wrong kinds of people and is stirring up the pot.
So when the Pharisees point out once again that his disciples were not following the rules, Jesus lets loose. “You are missing the point,” he says. “Beware, you religious people, when you get so hyper-focused on your own belief and wanting to make sure that everyone else shares that exact same way of believing, that you forget in whom you believe. Beware, you religious people, when your spiritual practices and religious doctrines change from being conduits of nourishment for your spirit and community into being concrete barriers that prevent reaching out to others with the love, justice, and mercy of God.”
“Beware, you religious people, when living one’s faith becomes more and more about reinforcing boundaries and the way things are and less and less about loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
“Beware,” Jesus says, “when we become more concerned with keeping people out than with noticing who God has brought in.” Beware. There is much more to life and faith than only identity-markers, rule-following, and boundary-keeping. Jesus did not hold back.
Now, unfortunately, we do not have record of the Pharisees’ immediate reaction to this dressing-down by Jesus. We do not know if they were stunned by his hot-tempered response or hurt by it. They might have felt a little of both. They might have been stunned because they had asked an honest question. And they might have been hurt because they knew that loving God with all their heart, mind, and strength was the centerpiece of their faith and not hand-washing. They just did not realize how much their desire to keep the tradition had started to eclipse their ability to love and to be on the watch for God’s new thing.
It is actually a dangerous thing for any faith community, not just the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. We have set traditions, set ways of doing things, important rules and necessary boundaries that tell others who we are while reminding us of whose we are. But sometimes if a faith community is not careful, all of those set traditions, those set ways of doing things, those important rules and necessary boundaries—all of it carries the potential of eclipsing the real centerpiece of faith and identity: the love of God and neighbor, and the trust that God isn’t finished yet.
So may we learn from our siblings the Pharisees and not forget to regularly ask ourselves if any of our rules or any of our boundaries have shifted from primarily being focused on reminding us who we are to primarily being focused on telling everyone else who they are not and who they do not get to be, according to us. For things like that tend to get Jesus a little riled up.