Reading the Bible with Clean Hands (Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23): Sermon 8-30-2015

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August 31, 2015 by jmar198013

My sermon for Sunday August 30, 2015 at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. The texts were Deuteronomy 4.1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1.17-27; and selections from Mark 7.1-23.


Jesus in a bully circle

After five weeks visiting John’s Gospel, we are back in Mark. But the timeline is still the same. We’re still maybe a day or two out from Jesus feeding the 5,000. Our Gospel lesson today picks up in familiar territory: The Pharisees and some legal experts from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. Those pesky Pharisees have bussed in some outside agitators from Jerusalem to assist them in their campaign against Jesus. And now they’ve formed the bully circle around him. Eyes open for a reason—any reason—to bust Jesus. And when you’re looking for a reason to bully someone, you always find it. The reason they found was Jesus’ disciples. They saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands. Some bullies pick on you because of your haircut. Or your weight. Or the shoes you wear. Or the secret family scandal the whole town knows about somehow. Then there’s the bullying that targets you because of your friends. You hang out with the wrong sort of people. They’re out, so you’re out. So the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?” The playground pecking order doesn’t end with elementary school. It doesn’t stop in middle school. It doesn’t let up one bit even high school. It chases us into adulthood. It follows us to college. It goes to work with us. It may even attend church services faithfully. Why, the playground pecking order even knows how to use the Bible to prove it is really the victim, not the instigator. Bullies who think God is on their side often leave a brutal gash of carnage in their wake. Victims are left with what they’re calling Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome. It sounds like the Pharisees and the legal experts are picking on the disciples—and they are. But they’re doing it to get at Jesus. The disciples are collateral damage. Holy wars always leave a pile of noncombatant casualties.

Reading the Bible as Americans

Mark tells us the God Squad is giving Jesus a hard time because they saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands. Maybe you’re thinking: Wait, why would they bother Jesus with that? Let their mothers chew them out for not washing up before meals. Well, of course it’s not that simple. Eating with unclean hands had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with holiness. Mark seems to have designed his Gospel to be understood by Gentiles, so he makes sure to explain this point thoroughly: The Pharisees and all the Jews—or Judeans—don’t eat without first washing their hands carefully. This is a way of observing the rules handed down by the elders. Upon returning from the marketplace, they don’t eat without first immersing themselves. They observe many other rules that have been handed down, such as the washing of cups, jugs, pans, and sleeping mats. That all sounds pretty extreme doesn’t it? I mean, who wants to sleep in a soggy bed? I think we Christians—especially we American Christians—like to poke fun at Jews—especially the Pharisees we meet in the Bible—because they have a lot of rules and traditions. There’s this strand running through American DNA that makes us fall in love with with explorers and pioneers; innovators and visionaries; rebels and outlaws. We romanticize Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde. We gave the world jazz and blues. Our national troubadours are Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. We stand up for Rosa Parks and march with Martin Luther King. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of the picture the Bible paints of the Pharisees. Sure, most of us wash our hands and our dishes and our bed sheets. But there’s nothing religious about it. So I think we tend to bring this very American love for rebels and outlaws to our reading of the Bible. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s part of what it means to read Scripture as Americans. And that’s a good thing—one of the awesome features of biblical faith is that it’s able to adapt to each culture. To speak to each people-group on earth in a particular way. But to recognize that we can’t help but read the Bible as Americans means we have to be cautious readers. It means that we have to be on-guard when we read stories like this. To make sure we aren’t just cheering for Jesus because he stands up to mindless bureaucrats, and booing the Pharisees because . . . well, they’re Pharisees. Then we might miss the point of the story completely. We might come away thinking it means that rules and traditions are bad. Or that Jews are uptight. Or that Jesus has set us free from the law, so let’s go eat a bacon double cheeseburger with dirty hands for the glory of God! And if we really think the story means any of those things, we might not notice when we’re acting like Pharisees. We might not be able to recognize church bullies for what they are. We might even become bullies who think God is on our side. We might leave a deep gash of devastation in the lives of other people, and feel completely justified.

Jesus confronts the Pharisees–and us–about the Bible

I suspect that one of the reasons we American Christians don’t understand the Pharisees is that we don’t get how they thought. We view our lives primarily through the lenses of our rights. In fact, I’ll diagnose a fundamental issue I see in American culture at large that has also crept into our churches: we love our rights more than we love our neighbors. The American story we learn from childhood is that our rights are universal—all people have them—and inalienable—which means they are unconditional and can’t be taken away. Okay, that’s not how the Pharisees thought. And really, that’s not how any ancient person thought. Including Jesus. The Pharisees—and this would not have been considered oppressive or fascist or whatever—viewed life primarily through the lenses of responsibilities. You have responsibilities to God and to your neighbor. And as strange as it sounds to us, these responsibilities to God and your neighbor extended all the way to cups, jugs, pans, and sleeping mats. Stanley Hauerwas likes to tell a story about one of his colleagues at Duke Divinity School. The man was Jewish, and he would say, “any religion that does not tell you what to do with your genitals and pots and pans cannot be interesting.” Anyway, that’s how the Pharisees thought. And that’s not why Jesus disagreed with them. Remember, in the Sermon on the Mount, he said: Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them (Matt. 5.17). Later, as the Sermon on the Mount was coming to a close, Jesus laid down what we call the Golden Rule: Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 7.12). Notice he doesn’t say, You don’t need the law and prophets anymore if you’ll just treat people how you want to be treated. He’s saying that treating other people the way you would like to be treated—being truthful and loyal and generous and patient—is what the law and prophets is really about. So the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus wasn’t that the Pharisees loved the laws and the traditions and Jesus thought they were stupid and useless. The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees cut much deeper than that. For the Pharisees, the rules handed down by the elders were guides to help them faithfully keep the law so they could be holy. The reason that the Pharisees ritually washed their hands and their vessels and utensils is that they were not always sure if their food was clean according to the law. What if it had been planted or harvested on the Sabbath? What if it hadn’t been tithed? They couldn’t control those things, but they could take responsibility for their own purity and holiness. The Pharisees were trying to keep Galilee faithful in the midst of a pagan culture. So they to stressed holiness and piety—circumcision, tithing, kosher eating. The things that communicated to the world that you were a God-fearing Jew. So the Pharisees’ emphasis on the laws and the traditions of the elders was all about maintaining the identity and integrity of God’s people. But for Jesus, keeping the law wasn’t an end. It was a means. The purpose of the law and the prophets is to teach us to be holy as God is holy. God is patient and generous and truthful and loyal, and the law and the prophets teach us how to be those things. So for Jesus, if your interpretation of the law made you mean and exclusive and stingy, then you weren’t doing it right. Jesus’s beef with the Pharisees was that their holiness came at the expense of other people. They cut off other people’s access to God and community and human flourishing. The way they interpreted the Bible was hurting people. They made God look like a jerk. And Jesus wasn’t going to put up with that.

Jesus thumps his Bible

So when the Pharisees and the legal experts bust in and attack Jesus’ disciples over eating with unwashed hands, he just snaps. He blurts out: Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. Subtlety was not one of Jesus’ spiritual gifts. He’s not riled up because the Pharisees and their Jerusalem cronies are insulting him. He may be a little defensive on behalf of his disciples. You know: Back off! I’m the only one who gets to tell off my disciples! But here’s what I strongly suspect made Jesus’ blood boil. This is all happening a day or two after the feeding of the 5,000. And if you remember, they filled twelve baskets to the brim with leftovers. Do you think maybe the bread they were eating with unwashed hands is some of those leftovers? So I think Jesus’ trigger here is basically: This bread they’re eating is the leftovers from when I fed 5,000 people out of a kid’s lunch box! You should be celebrating God’s abundance with us! Not hemming and hawing about whether or not they washed their hands first! Jesus is telling the Pharisees they really need to sort out their priorities. So Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah at them: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words. You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.” You know what Jesus is saying to them? He’s saying: You love your laws and your traditions more than you love God. You love your laws and traditions more than you love your neighbors. Today we might call holiness by different names. We might call it winning America back for God. Or defending traditional marriage. Or family values. Or contending earnestly for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. And I think we really need to listen to Jesus’ words here. If any of those things leads us to harm our neighbors. To exclude people from our care. To be hostile instead of hospitable. If any of those things blinds us to the awesome work God is already doing to redeem his creation, then we’re not doing it right. Our words may honor God, but our hearts have traveled far, far away from him.

Jesus cuts a whole chapter out of the Bible

How do you think the Pharisees took having the Bible quoted at them? Mark doesn’t say. But I know how I’d respond if I were a Pharisee. I’d say: Don’t you dare quote Isaiah at me, Jesus. You’re the one messing with the Bible and ignoring the commandments of God! See, I think we hear stories like this one in Mark, and we assume we know what’s going on. The Pharisees are picking a fight with Jesus over some dumb extra-biblical tradition. And Jesus is telling them just to get back to the Bible and stop using their own traditions as a test of orthodoxy. Problem is, it’s not that simple. In the rumble between Jesus and the Pharisees we overheard this morning, Jesus said: Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight. But the lectionary left out Mark’s commentary on what that meant. Mark 7.19 explains: By saying this, Jesus declared that no food could contaminate a person in God’s sight. Food doesn’t defile anyone. No foods are unclean. Wait—that’s not just some tradition handed down by the elders! That’s the Bible Jesus is messing with! Doesn’t that shock you? Doesn’t that just blow your mind? Jesus just took scissors and clipped out the entire eleventh chapter of Leviticus! In Lev. 11.44 God clearly told Israel: You must not make yourselves unclean by eating pigs or bats or lizards. If a mouse or lizard so much as fell in your water jug, you had to smash it because the mere presence of an unclean animal had contaminated it. So according to Lev. 11, there were plenty of foods that could contaminate a person in God’s sight. And these aren’t minor commands. This is forty-some-odd verses in our Bibles, capped off with God reminding Israel: I am the LORD . . . You must be holy, because I am holy. So yeah—if I was a Pharisee, I’d find it very ironic that Jesus was accusing us of ignoring or cherry-picking the Bible. I’d probably quote our Old Testament reading for today at him: Don’t add anything to the word that I am commanding you, and don’t take anything away from it (Deut. 4.2). Strong emphasis on the last part. Anyway, I bet some of you are thinking, Sure, but it’s Jesus, so it’s different. The Bible is his book. He can re-write parts of it if he wants. I’m not saying you’re wrong to think that. But I would ask you not to scramble so quickly for the Jesus juke. I want to suggest that this story serves as the church’s guide for living under the authority of Scripture. Jesus wasn’t really messing with the Bible. He was teaching us how to faithfully interpret the Bible.

An old debate about holiness: Which side are you on?

It turns out that the Pharisees and Jesus were engaging in a long-standing debate that went back to the time of the prophets. The debate was about the meaning of the purity or holiness code. What makes a people holy? Well, of course the priests would say it was circumcision and Sabbath-keeping and eating kosher and performing the sacrifices. The prophets disagreed. They argued that holiness was about right living. It meant being hospitable to God and your neighbor. So the prophets began to reinterpret the holiness code in a radical new way. They stripped it down to its barest, rawest, essential core. They preached that being clean or pure or holy has to do with your life, your attitude, your thoughts, your actions. So for instance, in Micah 6.8, the prophet rejects ritual purification through sacrifice. Instead, he reports this message from God: He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. The sacrificial system was bound up with the purity code. Most sacrifices had to do with purification of some sort—from sin or disease or accidental contact with some ritually unclean person or object. One of Jesus’ favorite lines from the prophets was Hosea 6.6, where God proclaims: I desire faithful love and not sacrifice. So Jesus and the Pharisees are continuing the ongoing debate between the prophets and the priests. The Pharisees have sided with the priests. That’s understandable. Just a few generations back, some of their ancestors had been butchered by pagan authorities over the purity code. You can read all about that in 2nd and 4th Maccabees. If they disregard the purity laws, they’re dishonoring the suffering and the sacrifice of their ancestors. Jesus, on the other hand, has sided with the prophets in the most radical way imaginable. He takes “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice” and applies it to the entire purity code. Now do you see why the Pharisees were so angry? Jesus was running down a sacred way of life their ancestors had died to defend. When Jesus declared that no food could contaminate a person in God’s sight, he might as well have burned the flag, as far as the Pharisees were concerned. Well, we know what the Pharisees didn’t. We know that the Bible is, after all, Jesus’ book. You know, after Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on the Mount of Transfiguration, God told the three disciples: This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him! (Mark 9.7). If you want to know how to interpret and apply Scripture, you do it like Jesus. And Jesus took the emphasis off the purity code because the purity code alienated people. The purity code excluded people. The purity code was used by religious bullies to justify hurting people. Now, what Jesus didn’t do was say, “Purity and holiness don’t matter anymore. God’s over it.” He picks a side in the old debate between priests and prophets. He sides with the prophets. What makes a person clean or unclean is their inner life. What makes a person clean or unclean is how they relate to God and other people. So Jesus says: Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person. A holy person—a person with truly clean hands—looks like the Psalm we heard today. A holy person lives free of blame, does what is right, and speaks the truth sincerely; does no damage with their talk, does no harm to a friend, doesn’t insult a neighbor. A holy person is always looking for someone to include in their care, not people to exclude. That’s why James said, in our Epistle today: True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us (James 1.26-27). That’s living with clean hands. That’s worshiping God with clean hands. That’s reading the Bible with clean hands. We know we’re doing it right when Scripture inspires us to celebrate God’s abundance by going out and welcoming people and standing up for them and standing with them and standing by them and sharing life with them. So there it is, church—the ones whose hands are clean to God may appear to have dirty hands to the world. And even to other church folk. That’s what we saw in our Gospel reading today, isn’t it? But we learn from Jesus’ life that doing things that made him unclean in the eyes of others—touching lepers and talking to women and eating with tax collectors—it was those very things that made his life a pure and faultless sacrifice to God. Let’s go out and get our hands dirty for Jesus.

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