Below is my sermon from September 2, 2018, focusing on selected verses from Mark 7. We’re back in Mark finally after five weeks of reading from the Bread of Life discourse. There’s a lot going on this reading from Mark, some historical and societal issues playing out that help it make sense. I try in my sermon to cover some of this background, without it devolving into a lecture.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Friends of ours have a cute sign in their bathroom that says, “Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” In our reading though, it seems that Jesus isn’t too interested in hand-washing, or indeed in cleanliness at all.
The Pharisees are upset because they have caught Jesus’ disciples eating without washing their hands. The author of Mark tells us that the Pharisees not only wash their hands before eating, they also wash their food and their plates and pots and cups. To us, this sounds like basic hygiene. Of course the Pharisees should be concerned that the disciples aren’t washing their hands. It’s gross. And so, when Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, you have to wonder why he reacts so strongly.
So, let’s take a look at what Jesus is and isn’t saying here. First of all, he’s not saying don’t wash your hands. Especially for all the kids out there, Jesus isn’t saying that washing your hands is bad. He’s not even opposed to the tradition of the Pharisees and elders to wash before eating.
Though it is just that, a tradition. Nowhere in the law will you find it said that you must wash your hands before eating. You will find that priests are supposed to wash their hands before entering the temple or before offering a sacrifice. The Pharisees were a group that took the calling of Israel to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation very seriously. They interpreted the laws concerning priests in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. So, they believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law.
This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. The Pharisees were not bad people—they were the religious leaders of their community. And they wanted all people, not just the priests in Jerusalem, to worship God in their daily life. This is a very good thing.
But what Jesus takes issue with is just how these efforts to live faithfully are being used. Something that is meant to draw them closer to God is in fact being used to alienate others who do not do exactly what they do. Something that is meant as a sign of faithfulness is being used to create hierarchies and distinctions.
This is not a problem that is unique to the Pharisees. Sometimes these passages get read in a very anti-Jewish way, that the Pharisees were following this rules-centric religion and Jesus came to free us from all of that. That’s not what’s going on at all. Jesus has some criticisms for the Pharisees that’s true. But it’s not because of what their religion is, but because of how they’re using it. Which is a problem that happens in all religions, not just Judaism.
It’s what the author of James is railing against in his letter, which was sent to Christian churches in the first century. “Be doers of the word,” he writes, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” In other words, don’t pretend to be faithful on the outside, without actually taking that faith to heart.
When Jesus talks to the Pharisees, when he criticizes the Pharisees, he’s talking to us. To you and me. The Pharisees are the church-goers of the first century. The people who take their faith seriously and are trying to do the right thing. These confrontations with Jesus show just how easy it is for people trying to be faithful to fall into hypocrisy. To start idolizing their traditions instead of God. To start serving their own interests and social standing instead of serving their neighbors.
And it happens to us, too. I’ve been at churches before where if you didn’t wear “church clothes” you felt unwelcome. You felt judged as somehow not as worthy as all those who dressed more nicely than you. Churches draw lines of distinction between each other, too. If you don’t worship the way we do, you don’t belong in our church. If you don’t interpret the Bible the way we do, you’re not as forward thinking. If you wear full vestments you’re “too catholic,” but if you wear jeans and a polo to lead worship you’re too hipster. We use human traditions to create and further divisions between us.
And it’s not just churches. We have codes as a society—usually unwritten—that we use to categorize people. As kids are returning to school this week, especially if it’s a new school, the middle school or high school for the first time, they are going to be navigating so many unwritten codes. What clothes to wear, who to talk to, wear to sit. Whether it will help or hurt their social standing if they answer questions in class.
As adults, our ways of doing this become more subtle, but that doesn’t make them any less damaging. We build our reputations, our identities around these codes that only scratch the surface: a nice house, in the right neighborhood. A spotless house that doesn’t look like anyone lives there. The right car. Clothes that always look put together. Manicures that are never chipped. A degree from the right university.
Much like the Pharisees handwashing, these things aren’t bad in and of themselves. They become harmful when we use them to distinguish between who’s in and who’s out. Between who knows the right things to say and do and who doesn’t. That’s what Jesus has a problem with. When we draw unnecessary distinctions based on superficial things.
There was an Orkin commercial a few years ago for exterminating services that I remember. The Orkin man pulled up to a perfect house with a pristine lawn. He was greeted by the home’s owner and a squirt of hand sanitizer. Everything in this house was white and sparkling. “We don’t need an exterminator,” the woman said, “my house is perfectly clean and we don’t have bugs.” The Orkin man simply pulled back a piece of the wall and there, just beneath the surface of this beautiful house, this clean house, were thousands of bugs.
No matter what the outside looks like, it’s the inside that truly shows what’s there. As Jesus said, there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. Not eating the right foods, or having the right clothes, or living the right way isn’t going to separate you from God. The evil intentions that come from our hearts separate us from God. And then we use these differences we create to separate ourselves from one another.
No matter how polished the outside is, no matter how good we are at following the rules, it is what is within us that shows who we truly are. And sometimes for all of us, as Jesus points out, those are evil intentions. Things that hurt other people. Things that judge other people. Things that hurt and judge ourselves.
But it is also from within that good comes. It is from within that love, which God has instilled in each of our hearts, can spring forth to be shared. To be talked about. To be lived. It is from within that we find the “true religion” that James talked about: caring for one another. Loving God and our neighbors. Being humble. Always taking care of the most vulnerable among us. These are also things that come from within, that come from our hearts.
Inside each of us is a mixed bag. I think we know that to be true just from experience. When you peel back the layers, you do not find only good things, only good intentions. We often make mistakes that hurt ourselves and others. But neither do we find within us only evil and hurtful things. The Holy Spirit of God dwells within each of us, guiding and directing us, giving us the capacity for love and for care. As James writes: “Every generous act, every perfect gift, is from above.”
May we be vessels of God’s love, of God’s generosity, of God’s grace, worshipping God in word and in deed. May we let it be God’s vision that springs forth from our hearts, and may we always find God in the hearts of our neighbors. Amen.