“Eating bread with unclean hands: a food fight in Mark 7”: a Lord’s Supper homily

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September 6, 2012 by jmar198013

Presented this on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012. The lectionary gospel reading was Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23. I took my cues from there. A lot of folks got it, some didn’t. This year I’ve been focusing my communion thoughts around the topic of table fellowship.
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A bunch of Pharisees and some of the scribes–outsiders from Jerusalem–ganged up on Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples were eating bread with unclean hands. In other words, they hadn’t washed their hands before eating. See, Pharisees–in fact, Judeans in general–don’t eat unless their hands have been washed all they way up to elbows, in keeping with the received tradition of the elders. They also won’t eat food from the market without washing it first. Same goes for cups, pots, bronze serving dishes–all must be cleansed according to the received traditions of the elders. And the Pharisees slammed Jesus over this. “How come your disciples don’t follow the traditions passed down by the elders? Why do they eat with unclean hands?” Jesus answered them back: “Surely you are the two-faced phonies Isaiah prophesied about where it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips while their heart is far away from me. Yet their reverence is meaningless, for they teach as God’s own words the commands of men.’ You throw away God’s law and stick to traditions passed along by humans.”

Jesus turned his attention back to the crowd. “You all listen to me, and listen well,” he said. “Nothing that goes into a person can make him unclean. What makes a person unclean is what comes out of him. All a person’s wicked intentions are carried out from inside them: debauchery, sticky fingers, cold-blooded killings, infidelity, stinginess, depravity, thoughtlessness, swindling, spite, back-stabbing, ego-tripping, and nit-picking–those originate in the heart. All those evil things move from the inside out, and those are what make a person unclean.” (Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

The Word of God for the people of God.

In Mark’s Gospel, you can always count on two things. First is, Jesus’ disciples will inevitably land him in hot water merely by showing up and being themselves. In this instance, they were eating bread with unwashed hands. Unlike the Pharisees, who had the good sense to live where there was running water. The second thing you can always count on in Mark is that whenever the Pharisees come over for dinner, there’s bound to be a food fight. And not the kind where someone gets a pie in the face. A fight over food. What sort of food to eat, how to eat, who gets to eat and when. The fight really involves who gets a place at the table and what they should expect to find when they get there.

As we prepare to gather around Jesus’ table, it might be a good idea to consider our own food fights, and imagine together what Jesus might have to say about them.

I want to begin by making what I know will be an unpopular suggestion: it seems to me that we may be giving the Pharisees a raw deal. In the Gospels they’re basically stock characters, foils and fodder for Jesus. They prance in as officious busybodies and cause a scene by goading Jesus over some triviality. Jesus proceeds to wallop them with his superior intellect. Pharisees skulk back off to their enclave, muttering, “We’ll get you next time, Jesus.” I don’t know that that’s a fair portrayal. I think we can all appreciate that the disagreements between Jesus and the Pharisees were more complicated than we have been led to believe. Let me be clear, I don’t believe that this is a problem with the Bible. It’s just that there’s things Mark’s audience knew that we don’t, simply because of where they were located in history. Now, it’s true that the Pharisees were deeply flawed people. It’s true that they could be boringly earnest and trifling. It’s true that they were prone to looking down their noses at the Galilean rednecks who didn’t have the time, the money, or in this case the plumbing, to follow the traditions of the elders. It’s true that they required unreasonable things of their adherents, like tithing their spice racks. And it’s true that they often got their priorities out of whack. In a portion of Mark 7 I didn’t read this morning, Jesus slammed the Pharisees for creating a tax shelter that let them weasel out of caring for their elderly parents. All of these things are true. But can you name me any culture, any church, anybody that’s not beset by the sins of the Pharisees? [dramatic pause] Right, I didn’t think so.

Henri Nouwen once wrote that it’s hard to stop being the prodigal son without turning into the elder brother. God didn’t put the Pharisees into the Bible to make them our scapegoat; rather, he wrote them into his story to make them our mirror.

Truth is, the sorts of disputes and bickering we get to eavesdrop on between the Pharisees and Jesus were going on all throughout the Jewish world. They sound silly to us now, but in their day they were substantive and provocative. These were important discussions about ethics, morality, and most importantly, identity. They were talking about what it means to be the people of God. When the Pharisees criticized the disciples for eating with unclean hands, it wasn’t about personal hygiene, it was about community holiness.

It seems that in the Gospels, the Pharisees never got a word in edgewise. But I imagine that if we could stand one of them up in our midst right now, they’d tell us that hand-washing and food laws weren’t actually first priority for them. They might even agree with Jesus that loving the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves was top priority. If we asked them to defend themselves against what Jesus said about them in Mark 7, I imagine they’d say something like this: “Look, we weren’t trying to supplant the law with the elders’ traditions. We were trying to uphold the law. For us, practices like hand-washing and cleaning our food and utensils are what you people call spiritual disciplines. More importantly, as the culture around us changed, we saw a lot of our brethren adapting in unfaithful ways. We needed ways to maintain our identity and integrity as a people, to clearly show that we are Jews and not Gentiles. We know full well that evil behaviors defile us. We know full well that impure deeds proceed from impure hearts. You think Jesus was telling us something we didn’t already know? Our spiritual disciplines might have seemed arbitrary to Jesus, and they must look downright bizarre to you. But to us, they are vital practices to remind us that we are holy people. They are meant to guard our hearts from impurity. And this guy says we’re ignoring the Bible? Did you ever stop to think that when he told all those people nothing they eat could make them unclean, he just cut the entire eleventh chapter out of the scroll of Leviticus? Who’s really ignoring the Bible?”

Any of that sound familiar? I told you that the Pharisees are in there as our mirror, not as our scapegoat. You know, we American Christians recently experienced our own food fight. And the name of that food fight was National Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day. I’m not up here to praise it or to bash it, but I do believe it illustrates the tensions between the Pharisees and Jesus pretty well. Some of us participated because we felt that our morals, our values, our identity were under attack. Some of us, however, replied that when Jesus spoke of the cost of discipleship, he didn’t mean the price of a 4-piece Chicken Minis. The first group retorted that they didn’t believe eating at Chick-Fil-A August 1st was up there with loving God and neighbor, but they were doing it to show the world where they stood. The second group told them this was silly. Chick-Fil-A Day was simply the company turning a PR nightmare into miracle marketing gold.

No matter how you come down on it, the whole fiasco should help us relate to the situation in Mark 7. In an increasingly secular world, we Christians are constantly looking for boundary markers, lines of identity that make a distinction between us and the rest of the world. In our pursuit of community discipline and holiness, we make all sorts of issues “identity-defining,” and claim that whatever stance one takes on them determines whether they are a genuine Christian or not. In that sort of environment, it is inevitable that occasions will arise like the food fight in Mark 7. Some of us will accuse others of eating with unclean hands.

I imagine that Jesus’ words today might echo what he told the Pharisees in Mark 7. he’d quote Isa. 29.13 at us and tell us we were throwing away God’s word and clinging to the commands of men. If we marched our transplanted Pharisee friend back out to continue the discussion with Jesus, I bet he’d say something like this: “You know Jesus, we never could figure out why you used that passage on us. Isaiah spoke to people besotted with idolatry and compromising with the nations. Those are the very things we were trying to guard our people against.” And I think Jesus would reply: “Ah, but you were idolaters nonetheless. Self-righteousness is the most pernicious form of idolatry there is. When you suppose that you get to decide for yourselves what makes you righteous, and then cobble together an interpretation of the law to suit your whims, your righteousness has become an idol. Those who carve idols out of stone do so out of insecurity. Those who make idols of themselves do so out of arrogance.”

Ultimately, I do agree that in an increasingly diverse society there is an abiding need for Christians to focus on our identity and integrity. But I think Jesus is telling us that we don’t do this by excluding others we deem unclean. Rather, we do this by letting our identities conform to Christ’s. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus healed on the Sabbath. He touched lepers and dead people. He was touched by an unclean woman. He ate with sinners. He was more concerned that people around him had enough to eat than whether or not they washed their hands first. Interestingly enough, the very acts that rendered Jesus unclean in the eyes of his neighbors are also the ones that made him a pure, unblemished sacrifice before God. He was able to touch our uncleanness and make it clean. The identity and integrity of the church is maintained when we, like Jesus, are willing to touch and let ourselves be touched by others, and to share our table with them, without first calculating who is clean and who is not. Sure, we’ll get our hands dirty. Our neighbors might think us unclean. But what we celebrate around this table is that Jesus’ cleanness is always able to overcome our uncleanness.

Bread: As we gather at Christ’s table to share in his bread, let us remember that Jesus wants us to be more concerned that everyone is fed than whether or not their hands are washed. It’s in his name we pray. Amen.

Cup: As we drink to Jesus’ memory, may we remember that our uncleanness has been made clean only by his blood. In his name we pray. Amen.

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2 thoughts on ““Eating bread with unclean hands: a food fight in Mark 7”: a Lord’s Supper homily

  1. Jack says:

    This post also yielded several more nuggets for my notes. Thanks for the insights, Jeremy.

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