Menu Close Menu

What Goes In, Must Come Out

A Homily from Mark 7:1-23

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

St. John's Lutheran Church, Atlanta, Georgia

September 3, 2006 (22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Our reading from St. Mark’s gospel allows us to join Jesus as he continues his ministry on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. He has recently fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Following that, he went for a stroll across the top of the sea itself. Then, in the section immediately before our chapter for today, we saw Jesus walking through the town of Gennesaret. His reputation had preceded him, and people came to him carrying their friends and family members who were two sick to walk, in the hopes that Jesus would heal them. Mark tells us that every single person who even touched the fringe of Jesus’ cloak was healed.

It’s hardly surprising that this has gathered the attention of the religious leaders of the day. It’s their job to be watchful for the work of God, and – on the surface at least – miraculous feedings and instantaneous healings would certainly seem to indicate that God is at work in some way. So, the good, church-going folk of Jesus’ day; the Sunday School teachers and the Church Council members, and the seminary professors come to Jesus to ask him a few questions.

There are several good questions for them to ask. They could have started, perhaps, with “How are you doing these things?” Perhaps a more practical approach would have been, “How can we do these things?” They choose, however, neither of these lines of thought. Instead, they ask, “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?”

Let’s go over that again. These folks have been traveling with Jesus. They have seen men and women with shriveled legs stand up and dance after touching him. They have seen the scabbed and scarred skin of people with leprosy become as smooth as a child’s, and the healing happened simply from touching the edges of Jesus’ clothes. The man in front of them has seemingly unlimited power over the forces of nature, even over life and death; and these folks are asking him questions about hygiene?

Listening to that conversation two thousand years later it’s easy to conclude that these pious and faithful believers – the text identifies them as Pharisees – were nuts. What could possibly cause a sane, rational person to be more concerned with hand-washing than with the miraculous, life-changing events happening right in front of them? What could shift someone’s priorities in such a bizarre, nonsensical way?

Well, in the case of the Pharisees, the answer is: The Bible.

The Pharisees took the words of the Bible very, very seriously. In Exodus, God’s command is clear. Priests should wash their hands before entering into the presence of God to offer any kind of sacrifice [Exodus 30:20-21]. Equally clear is the command of God in Leviticus that all of God’s people are to be holy because God is holy [Leviticus 20:26]. The Pharisees took this to mean that anyone who wished to be truly faithful to the scriptures and holy before God should observe the same kinds of ritual cleansings that the priests observed.

The Pharisees used a variety of these kinds of rituals to remind themselves daily, even hourly, that God calls us to be set apart, to be holy. They had strong biblical support for doing just that, and the bulk of the Torah is dedicated to reminding all of us who would be faithful to God that we should do just what the Pharisees were trying to do – we should demonstrate in every aspect of our lives, no matter how basic or common, that we belong to God and not to the world.

So the Pharisees’ question is not really about hygiene. They want to know how it is possible for God to grant Jesus the power to change lives if he and his disciples are not willing take the Bible as seriously as they do. It’s a fair question. “How can you claim to be teaching us how to follow God in these big, dramatic ways if you do not obey God in the simplest of ways?”

Many of us have heard similar questions. How can you claim to be a Christian and believe in evolution? How can you claim to be a Christian and let electric guitars into your sanctuary? How can you claim to be a Christian and have a gay man as your pastor?

This is an easy place to answer those kinds of questions because we have wrestled with them, studied them, prayed about them, and, ultimately, come to conclusions that we find satisfying. The harder task, I think, for churches like ours is to remember that people asking these questions are not necessarily mean or ignorant or narrow-minded. They ask because they are trying to take our common Scriptures seriously.

Jesus responds to these concerns by quoting the Scriptures as well. Specifically he cites a passage from the prophet Isaiah. In that passage, the LORD speaks, challenging the people of God for observing the rituals of faith without allowing their hearts to be transformed by faith in God. God promises to do great acts of power until the time when the people finally change their hearts as well.

Jesus builds on the words of the prophet, calling those who chose human tradition over the actual commands of God “hypocrites.” So far, so good. Jesus is explaining that his disciples are not ignoring the commands of the Law. Instead, they are practicing authentic piety instead of the ritual piety that has, apparently, led to hypocrisy for some. In essence he says, “You do these things to be faithful to God, but what shows real faithfulness to God?”

Then Jesus makes a more radical point. He gathers around his followers and says, “Listen clearly. It’s not the things that go into you that defile you, make you unclean, or separate you from God. It’s the things that come out of you.” Mark inserts a little note here to let us know that, in this one moment, Jesus declares all food clean.

This is a far more radical move than just attacking hypocrisy. No one likes hypocrisy, and – as Jesus points out – the Prophets are clear that God prefers mercy over sacrifice and authentic faith over ritual cleanliness. On the other hand, the Torah is equally clear that eating certain foods renders a person unclean, and that some foods are even an “abomination” to God [e.g. Lev 11:13]. Even our Hebrew Bible lection for today emphasizes how important the ritual traditions of cleanliness are. We are instructed to neither add nor take away anything from the commandments and to pass them on to all our descendants [Deut 4:1-9].

Jesus rejects over a millennium of tradition and the clear teachings of the Scriptures by saying that cleanliness is ultimately only about who we are, not about the ritual practices we observe. The number of theological problems that creates is substantial. In fact, when I realized what our texts for today were my first thought was, “Yup, that’s the sort of reading a pastor wants to be out of town for.”

Here are just a few of the problems in this passage. First, if Jesus is right, then why did God impose these food and cleanliness laws with such strong and uncompromising language? There is no mention of “just do this until my Son comes” in the Torah. Secondly, if Jesus is right, then do we get to feel smug and superior to our Jewish brothers and sisters who strictly follow God’s Word in the Torah? Finally, and this is a big one for any pastor, if it’s our heart and not our rituals that make us faithful, then why are we at Church? Why do we practice the disciplines of prayer and confession? Why do we celebrate the sacraments? Why do we suffer through sermons when we could be out enjoying Labor Day weekend?

Lets go back to that first one. If Jesus is right, why have the Law in the first place? If what matters is our hearts, why were God’s people instructed to set themselves apart through their diets and their ritual washings and their sacrifices?

Why did God expect all of these rituals? The short answer is: because they work. The Law of the Hebrew Bible takes every basic aspect of life – food, clothing, work schedule just to name a few – and tells God’s people to do things differently in each and every area as a reminder that they are set apart from the world. As Christian monks understand, and as Mormon missionaries understand, and as every Army Drill Sergeant understands – this process is tremendously effective. When we allow our identity to shape every aspect of our life, that identity becomes central to how we understand ourselves.

God gave our ancestors in the faith the Law because it works. The problem is that it does not work well enough. In the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, God points out that humans invariably fail at keeping the written Law, so the day will come when God will write the Law on our hearts instead [Jeremiah 31:31-2].

Jesus’ words to his disciples recall that passage. When we rely on a specific code of behavior or a certain set of rituals to determine our righteousness; we invariably fail in one of two ways. We either realize that we can never live up to the standard, and we give up in despair; or we do such a good job checking off boxes that we become convinced that we’re the best Christians in the world. The Pharisees certainly aren’t the only sincere believers to have fallen into this trap.

Every church, liberal or conservative, has their own set of standards that define what it means to be a “good” Christian. In the church where I grew up, no one would ever have dared to admit having a glass of wine with their supper. Good Christians didn’t do that sort of thing. Now no one here would think twice about inviting someone out for drinks on a Friday night. On the other hand, I wonder what would happen if, at the reception after church, someone admitted they didn’t recycle?

Every Christian community sets norms like these. Jesus, the observant Jew who wore fringes on his garment and observed the holy feast days, is not critiquing the need to translate our desire for holiness into action. Jesus does not say that it is wrong to seek ways to set ourselves apart from the world. That’s one of the reasons that this text is not an excuse to feel superior to those who preserve the commands of the Hebrew Bible. Living in a way that is set apart from the world is part of focusing our lives on God instead of ourselves. Jesus in no way disputes that with this text.

What Jesus does say to his disciples, and to us, is that these are not the things that make us clean. Our actions are not what make us holy.

Our uncleanness, our lack of holiness, does not come from the things that we do and the things we touch. It comes from the condition of our hearts. It comes from the brokenness and the sin and the weakness that we all know is there if we look long enough.

Jesus then gives a long list of how the work of our frail, human hearts can make us unclean: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, slander, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly” are the examples he gives. That’s quite enough to convince me that I am unclean several times over. In fact, if you heard the list and couldn’t think of a single one that applied to you…well, please allow me to remind you that “pride” was on the list.

To review, Jesus tells us first not to trust in the traditions of Scripture to make us holy. Then he tells us to look to our hearts and – when we do – he points out that holiness is impossible for us. What are we to do then?

We have no choice but to turn to the Creator of our hearts. It is only when our hearts are transformed through the love of God, through the sacrifice of Christ, through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, that we are truly clean.

As humans, that is counter-intuitive. We want to work from the outside in. We want to start with the things we can see: How often do I go to Sunday School? How often do I pray? How often do I refrain from cussing when I’m on I-285? How often am I at church? How much money or food do I give during the offering?

Now please, when Brad gets back, don’t tell him that I told you to stop going to Sunday School or to stop praying. Whatever you do, don’t say that I told you to stop giving to the offering. All of these acts of piety are important, but our obligation as followers of Christ is to admit that none of them makes us better than anyone else.
Unfortunately, we often do a poor job of communicating that. The common perception of Christians is that we think far too highly of ourselves because of our involvement in our churches; that we think we are better than other people because of the things we do.

The truth should be quite the opposite. As Christians, the good things that we do should grow out of our gratitude to a God who loves us despite our inherent un-holiness. We come to church not to be better people. We come to church to say thanks.