Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 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.) 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?” 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; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger lately, if for no other reason than it’s all around us. Anger and reports of anger pervade news cycles, as alienated souls fortified by the railing of television and internet pundits launch verbal and sometimes physical assaults on those they’ve been told are their enemies. 

We have become so angry that it’s worth asking whether we’re any longer capable of anything other than angrily venting. I use the word “we” deliberately here because I am far from immune to outrage. Truth be told, my own struggle with anger is the likely source of my noticing—and (ironically) becoming angry toward– the anger of others. I realized this was a problem one morning last fall, when I was reading an article about the horrors to which detained immigrants at our southern border were being subjected. Quite spontaneously I found myself yelling at my computer screen, “What the hell is wrong with these people? 

To be sure, there is plenty to be angry about. 

  • A recently released Cimate Change report presented us with what looks to be a choice between things becoming incrementally worse before they stabilize somewhere between really bad and imminently cataclysmic, depending on whether we finally find the courage to pull our heads out of our rears, reduce consumption, and start paying the debt we’ve been accruing to Creation for the past 150 years or so. 
  • The enthusiasm attending our fleeting and ultimately illusory control over Covid-19 in June and July gave way by the beginning of August to overfilled intensive care units and escalated squabbles over local mask ordinances—reminders of how deep the opportunism and suspiciousness that have given us the mask wars and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories run. 
  • And this is to say nothing of myriad, less-reported tragedies, from the continued reign of an exploitative economy to the innumerable divisions brought by racial and ethnic bigotry. How could any caring, right-thinking person not be angry about all this?

But there’s a line separating righteous anger from sanctimonious outrage. The latter is a form of self-deception, and its consequences are invariably unhappy.

This week’s gospel text, from Mark, nicely illustrates the difference. 

In the story, a group of Pharisees, likely the leaders of surrounding Galilean synagogues, and some scribes from Jerusalem, apparently in the region to confirm (or challenge) what they’d heard about the new Galilean prophet, gather around Jesus and begin asking questions. These experts in the Law of Moses observe that Jesus’s disciples, who were eating, hadn’t first washed their hands, which they found at least offensive and perhaps an indication that Jesus was no prophet at all.

We must note that Jesus regularly hung out with and ate with Pharisees, who basically defined themselves by keeping ritually pure all the time. Maintaining ritual purity was not strictly necessary except for temple servants and priests. Becoming ritually impure is not the same thing as sinning. But the Pharisees’ vision of a restored covenantal people involved them being ready (ritually pure) at any moment to encounter God’s presence. It was actually a radically equitable belief system which argued that all the people were to be as holy/set apart from normal society as priests. It might help to think of this aspect of Pharisaic belief and practice as “the priesthood of all believers” taken really seriously.

Instead of answering a pretty basic and accusative question about why “some of his disciples” (which is not to say Jesus or all his disciples) set aside important traditions about pre-meal washing, Jesus turned the tables and asked those around him why they set aside important laws about parental care. He then went even further to say that nothing that goes into humans can make them unclean, but only that evil which comes out of them (15, 23).

Jesus intensifies the discussion from what is merely unclean to what is actually evil/sinful. These are two different concepts entirely. Being unclean only prevents people from engaging in certain holy activities (temple worship, sex …). 

To be unclean isn’t the same as sinning and being unclean isn’t evil. But, Jesus says, it’s the evil in the hearts of humans—especially expressed in sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly—that makes humans unclean. One can’t simply follow the rules while, and at the same time, abusing or mistreating other humans and expect to be ready to be in God’s presence. 

So the question for today is…what can defile us or make us impure? According to Jesus, nothing that we can consume or put into our bodies can do that. Only deeds and actions that create hate, violence, and harm can defile us.

When I was in High School, I knew people who belonged to churches that emphasized purity and holiness. For them, it meant not to consume alcohol, drugs, go to school dances, or listen to heavy metal music. They were also told not to consume other things. I am sure there is some merit to be mindful of what we put into our bodies, and our minds for that matter. But these are external things that we can consume or not. We have no control over these external things, in the sense that they are not from us. We may consume them, but we are not the ones that created them.

On the other hand, we can generate from within us plans to harm other people. Those plans are not external to us. In a very real way, they are us. Jesus is unveiling before his audience a deeper sense of being a practicing believer. Not consuming certain things can certainly be beneficial, but recognizing that evil comes from within us, humbles us in trusting God’s mercy.

We have a saying “It’s not what is done to you but it’s how you respond that matters,” but do we really live that out in our lives? External things are beyond us, but our hearts are ours to control. What comes out of them is our responsibility. Again, the point is not to be careless about what we consume, but the issue that Jesus is raising has to do with what we put in our hearts. Struggling with our own evil keeps us grounded in our need to fill our heart with good things. That good thing that our heart needs is the Gospel. The Gospel is external to us and fills our heart with faith, not pride. Pride might lead us to think that we are better than other people. For example:

  • White Supremacy comes from within the hearts of people who think that they are superior to people who are not Caucasian. Racism may lead the hearts of some to believe they are better than other people because of the color of their skin. 
  • Bigotry against members of the LGBTQIA+ community comes from the heart of people who do not welcome God’s sexual and gender diversity as a gift for humanity. Sometimes these things are is easy to see, sometimes it hidden under other layers of thoughts and ideas and sometimes they are built into the everyday structures, so we do not notice our thoughts. 

But the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims the love of God for all people. If a human being is being denigrated because of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or any other reason, those actions come from within the individuals who believe they are superior.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenged the religious crowd of his time to examine themselves before they judge others based on external things; things that do not come from within the heart. We all have the potential for evil. Examining our hearts leads us to that conclusion. 

Hopefully, we can also infer, by the grace of God, that we need to consume the Gospel, so that we may not reach the wrong conclusion that our external identity markers, are the things that give us standing before God and our neighbors. 

Being male, straight, and white are external things. They do not merit any special treatment. That’s why our hearts need to consume the Word of God as both Law and Gospel every day, so that we may die to sin, and rise to a new life. The Law will unmask our hearts, and our desire to cling to external identity markers as our saviors. We want to be worthy based on external things, not matters of the heart. The Gospel will remind us that we are worthy of forgiveness, not because we have some kind of external markers, but because God’s love for us and all of humanity is eternal. Even though our heart generates less than stellar deeds and actions from time to time, God’s heart is big enough to forgive us.

For Jesus, getting bogged down in rules about ritual status that prevent one from dealing with the deeper sins that harm others is a trap from which he wants to free people. The traditions weren’t the problem, and by all accounts Jesus followed them. It was only when the traditions prevented people from focusing on eradicating sins that were harming other humans that it got in the way of freedom.

In his writing On the Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther argues that the freedom we are to be moving toward is not immorality. Rather, it’s a freedom from all sorts of traps that would prevent us from living fully in service to God and neighbor. No matter if it is a grand palace or an otherwise healthy tradition, if it prevents us from partnering with what God is doing, we need to be freed from it. So does it really matter what goes in our bodies vs. what comes from our heart in our thoughts, words and deeds?

Which brings us back to anger, which comes from within us and which the epistle, from the book of James, addresses by making a point not unlike the one Jesus makes in the gospel lesson. James also works with a contrast, not between defilement from without and within, but the goodness of that which comes from above and the potential wickedness of that which comes from within. 

Those things we receive as gifts—good things—James says, come from God, who is not simply the author of goodness, but goodness itself. Such gifts are to be used, he suggests, not simply for our own benefit, but for the benefit of our fellow members of Creation, of which the people of God are to be “first fruits.”

The author of James is calling on his readers, then, to cultivate a disposition of gratitude and generosity, which he contrasts in what follows with anger born of certitude, resentment, and envy. What matters most, he concludes, is performing, rather than merely hearing, the word. 

What both of these passages suggest is that faithfulness consists in being a faithful member of a people, one constituted by the call to love: one another, our neighbors, and even our enemies. The name for that love is friendship, which is made impossible by the sanctimonious outrage that today passes as anger. 

So perhaps a way forward in a world so divided as ours is to seek ways to hear, understand, discover commonalities, and perhaps even welcome those angry others whose outrage tempts us to anger—especially those who call themselves Christians, with whom we share a baptism. What, in short, must I do to follow the Christ I say I believe in? We’ll only know if we try, because it’s far passed time that we begin.