Proper 17, Year B, 2018 September 2
Kevin Gore – St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Hypocrites. That’s a word we hear from Jesus quite a few times. It’s used a little over 20 times throughout the four Gospels, usually directed at the most outwardly pious figures, quite often authorities of the Temple or the Pharisees. Today’s Gospel is one of those times. It’s rather clear what
Jesus is saying, that these men who are questioning the disciples’ lack of complying with the traditional social norms expected around eating have focused too much on the wrong things. Jesus is used to being questioned by this point, especially by religious authorities. The intellectual culture of first century Palestine is one where being challenged and either winning that challenge or losing will continually shape your social standing. But one can imagine that maybe Jesus expected more out of these guys. If you’re going to try and challenge Jesus’ knowledge and authority in relation to Torah or the Laws of God, don’t start using customs and human traditions as your foundation.
You see, doing all that washing that is described in the Gospel of Mark is not mandated by God. There is nothing in the Levitical laws, in the Ten Commandments, or anywhere else provided or inspired by God that dictate this. The washing is entirely based in culture and probably is something learned over many decades of poor sanitation and disease. These complex rules of washing probably have some inspiration in the laws of purity, but no matter how much some want them to be, they are not a part of it. So it seems like Jesus is not having any of this line of questioning when he hearkens back to Isaiah referring to the people that are honoring God with their words and not their deeds, and as it is written, “teaching human precepts as doctrine.” Now there’s quite the sticky wicket as we sit here today in this church, with vestments, with particular ways of doing things, of ways we approach the table for communion based in doctrine, and how we form our entire worship.
I’ll let you ruminate on that for a minute and return to Jesus and his teachings. So Jesus continues responding to this inquiry about hand washing by speaking to the crowd at large and saying that nothing that goes into a person can defile them, but it’s what comes out that can defile a person. I want to pause here and say that I’m 99.9% certain that this is entirely meant to be understood on a deeper level than literal. We know that if you eat the wrong thing, if you ingest spoiled food or don’t wash your hands after you’ve been working with children or with those who are ill, there is a likelihood you are going to get sick. So here Jesus is pulling apart two separate concepts that have been mashed together in Jewish practice. We’re talking about sanitation and hygiene versus spiritual defilement. The purity laws were taken to mean you were ritually unclean, but many of the purity laws are really formed out of a helpful guide to survive. Pork, for instance, is forbidden by Jewish dietary laws. It’s not because pork is spiritually harmful, it’s because in the ancient Middle East when these laws are formed, you have no way of preserving the meat that can absolutely guarantee you won’t get sick from eating it, let alone how difficult it is to raise pigs and not end up with some sort of parasites in the meat at that time. The point Jesus is driving at here is that you can be the most ritually pure person in the world, but if you are not striving to love other people as God loves, then you are defiled by what you do. Then Jesus continues to talk about what actions defile, but first….the lectionary omits verses!
I think by now you all know what I’m going to do when the lectionary omits verses! I didn’t read it during the proclamation of the Gospel but I do want to cover it quickly. Right after Jesus says, “but the things that come out are what defile”, verses 17 – 20 are omitted. The author of Mark writes, “When Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.” Then Jesus goes on to talk about the evils that come from the human heart which defile. This omission again might make the reading shorter, but it provides more depth to the narrative. Even the disciples, the ones who weren’t necessarily observing all the accepted norms of washing aren’t quite able to wrap their minds around Jesus’ teaching. I don’t blame them. Jesus is pulling away centuries of cultural norm to get at the true meaning of something and sometimes that is hard for people to accept.
We see that so often in our own lives, which brings me back to that comment earlier about vestments and churches. It was a bit tongue in cheek, because while it does walk a fine line between commandments of God and human tradition, these are not inherently things that stand in the way of following through with loving people, with walking in the way of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, I dare say, they actually help remind us of that. But peeling away tradition when it doesn’t conform to Jesus’ teaching, to the values that God calls us to, is actually really hard most of the time. The basic truth is we fail at it. We fail at it a lot. Jesus has set the mark incredibly high and we’re probably never going to attain it. We see examples of human tradition being idolized over the commandments of God all the time. When children are torn from their parents, stuffed into cages, and abused by governments and we do nothing to stop it, traditions of nationalism and submitting to human authority has been valued over the commandments of God. When we allow the hungry, the sick, the needy to die because helping them means giving of our own fruits, we have given up on the commandments of God. When we don’t sell all of our possessions, give all the money to the poor, and live by the grace of God, we have not followed through with what Jesus commands us. I’ll be honest with you, I really doubt that last one is ever going to happen for me. Does that make me a hypocrite? Well, yeah, kind of.
But kind of not. A hypocrite is someone who is not genuine to what you see on the outside. The term hypocrite isn’t appropriate for someone who fails to accomplish an unattainable goal, no matter how hard they try. That is who we are as children of God. I think I can be pretty sure that we will never be able to fully live in to the call of Jesus Christ until that end of time when we are all gathered together in the eschaton. But we don’t get to just sit down and sulk that we aren’t going to accomplish the goal either. We strive. We work. We try our best to tear away human tradition when it conflicts with the Kingdom of God, we acknowledge that human traditions, that denominations, nationalities, borders, corporations, profits, worldly power, that it is all not directly from God but formed through our experience as creation. Not all of it is bad because not all of it asks us to abandon the way of God. But not all of it is good either. There are many things in our lives, in our cultures, in our human traditions that seductively throw stumbling blocks into our path to follow Christ. If we are constantly striving to do better, to follow better, regardless of how badly we do it, then no, we are not hypocrites. We are simply imperfect, and yet still we remain beloved by God.
It takes work, often times seemingly insurmountable work, to ensure we are not defiling ourselves with the evil intentions that Jesus lists. They come in many forms and often it is harder to recognize them from what we think is right. Just as there are always times we need to reassess if something is of God, when we find things that are not, we also need to step back and ask if it is being valued more than God’s ways. Pride, slander, and folly are after all on that list. This is hard work we have, following Jesus Christ and seeking to uphold the commandments of God. There are so many human things that constantly get in the way. Our choice must be to work at it even if we know we are ultimately going to fail. We must hold to the values of the Kingdom of God in face of conflicting tradition. Otherwise, if we are just here to pay lip service, if we are just hoping that our car is seen in the church parking lot or we are here to show off to our friends, then we are hypocrites and we will be called to account for that one day. Go out and try your best. Then try a little harder. God commands us to love, and shows us through the life of Jesus Christ how to do it best. God knows we are not going to be experts at it, but God also knows that in our hearts we are not hypocrites.