Archive | September 2012

14. Pentecost: Unclean Disciples

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

                                                          2 September 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO


“Unclean Disciples”

Based on St. Mark 7: 1-8, 14-23

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell


            Wash your hands before you eat!

How many of us heard that from our parents as children? Well the Pharisees, a group of Jewish reformers who put great emphasis on law, were shocked when they saw some of Jesus’ disciples eat without washing their hands first. But this isn’t about hygiene. The Pharisees’ concerns about cleanliness were not about bacteria, pesticides, or scrubbing off dirt – but about obeying the law. In fact, it is quite possible that the ritual handwashing the Pharisees were so concerned about was just a bit of sprinkling and didn’t do much for hygiene. The laws of the Pharisees declared who was clean and unclean, who was in and who was out. They accuse the disciples of eating with defiled hands, because they are not obeying what the Pharisees call “the tradition of the elders.” David Ewart writes that “The “tradition of the elders” is NOT the teaching of Moses as found in the Bible. It is the practice of the Judean elite which they are seeking to impose as THE one and only correct practice. And, as noted, the amount of water, time and money to follow those practices was beyond the reach of most people. And so most people were seen by the elites as unclean.”[1]

            The Pharisees had decided that their practice was the way. It was the only way to behave, otherwise you were unclean. Does that sound familiar to you? Sometimes we get into that mentality as well, determining that the way we as Americans live is the way the rest of the world should live, or thinking that the way we worship is the right way, and that there can be no deviation from that. But Jesus tells the Pharisees that they have it all wrong. He is bold and calls them hypocrites, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” Drawing from Isaiah, Jesus says that God wants more than lip service of empty rituals. Rituals are wonderful things that can help make meaning of our lives, but when they become so fossilized that doing them becomes more important than the faith they point to, they are done in vain. While the Pharisees may do their rituals and obey their laws, they are far from the heart of their faith, and their hearts are far from God.

            When we become legalistic and rigid about our faith we cut ourselves off from the rich and vast treasure that are the many expressions of the Christian tradition. Not only that, but we seek to control when and where the Holy Spirit can act. When we focus too much on the letter of the law and following the “tradition of the elders” we lose the heart of our faith. Jesus did not practice the insider/outsider religion of the Pharisees – he embraced the outcast. For Jesus what was important was that people were more true to the heart of faith in loving and serving God, than the rules humans have put up like fences around faith. Ron Rolheiser says, “we don’t do God, faith, religion, and the church a favor when our beliefs are narrow, bigoted, legalistic, or intolerant… God, religion, and the churches are, I suspect, more hurt by being associated with the narrowness and intolerance of some believers than they are by any theoretical dogmatic heresy. Right truth, proper faith, and true fidelity to Jesus Christ demand too that our hearts are open and wide enough to radiate the universal love and compassion that Jesus incarnated.”[2]

            Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for their judgment and says to all gathered, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” He tells those around him and tells us, it’s not the lack of washing hands or eating food that isn’t kosher that defiles a person. That’s not what makes you unclean – food just goes into your stomach, not your heart. But it’s what comes out of us, what comes out of our own hearts that defiles. It is not some outside evil that defiles us. It is the sin within us that does. It is our own behavior. Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “Eugene’s Peterson’s The Message as “It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life.”

            Jesus proclaims that “fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” These are all behaviors that come from within us. Certainly there are outside influences that can push us to do such things. But ultimately it comes down to the state of our own hearts before God. We could be following every law perfectly but if our hearts are impure we performing rituals in vain.

            When our traditions and rituals and practices become less about expressing our Christian faith, and more about order, regulations, insiders and outsider, it is time to revision what we are really about. When things like hand washing become obstacles to participation in the Body of Christ, it is time to let them go. In Journey with Jesus, Daniel Clenendin writes, “Given our human propensity for justifying ourselves and for scape-goating others, the purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually “clean” who considered themselves to be close to God, and the “unclean” who were shunned as impure sinners who were far from God. Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated. In word and in deed Jesus ignored, disregarded and actively demolished these distinctions of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.”[3] We must be very attentive to the ways in which we practice our faith may or may not create insiders and outsiders.

            It is all too easy to fall into the same traps as the Pharisees. So often we want certainty from our religious practices. We want something stable and sure. In that effort, traditions get calcified. We forget why we do things a certain way. When asked, often the answer is “Because we’ve always done it that way” or “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Sometimes following the ‘way things are supposed to be’ and following the letter of the law supercedes the compassion, grace and mercy that are supposed to be at the heart of our faith. All too often we lose sight of the heart, because it is so much easier to qualify and quantify physical things like hand washing. Things like that make it easy to determine who is in and who is out. Too many churches have long lists of those who are unclean and unwelcome. But those lists, those supposed exceptions to God’s love miss the point. They get trapped in legalism and exclusivism and miss the entire point. Ron Rolheiser says again “Jesus is clear about this. Anyone who reads the Gospels and misses Jesus’ repeated warnings about legalism, narrowness, and intolerance is reading selectively.”

            We must remember that it is not the exterior practices that can defile us, but what comes from our hearts. Do our hearts show love and compassion to those around us, or do we castigate others for not living the same way we do? Jesus did not come to earth to create yet more boundaries and walls between persons, but to tear them down. So then let us remember the heart of our faith, which is to love God and neighbor. The Good News is this: God has come to us in Jesus Christ to teach us how to love God, each other, and ourselves. Christ our Liberator frees us from the bonds of sin and legalism and exclusivism to find the vast, expansive Kingdom of God where all are welcome at the table, hands washed or not.