This Week’s Sermon – Dirty Hands and Lip Service

SCRIPTURE – Mark 7:1-23
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Dirty Hands and Loose Lips
Mark 7:1-23
Oct. 14, 2012

Barbecue. Just the word makes my mouth start to water. I really wish Jesus served barbecue at the Last Supper because then we could have it every Sunday. When I lived in Chicago, my friend Nelson and I would often go to Famous Dave’s, the only decent barbecue restaurant in the area. We would order our sweet teas and our ribs or pulled pork sandwiches and then dive in like some had taped a $100 bill to the bottom of the plate. Some barbecue restaurants give you these teeny little wet-naps to use after you’ve finished. Nelson and I just went outside and let them hose us off.

The Pharisees in today’s story probably wouldn’t think too kindly of that meal, not only because we were eating unclean food, but because we were very unclean in the way we went about it. On the surface, that seems to be what this argument is about. The Pharisees are criticizing Jesus and his followers for eating with unclean hands, and Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees for living with unclean hearts. Pretty easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys in this story, isn’t it? Could you imagine being so focused on following the letter of the law that you completely miss out on what the son of God is saying to you? How could the Pharisees be so hard-hearted?

As is often the case, there’s more going on here than a casual reading can tell us. The Pharisees are often portrayed as the villains in the gospels, the wily scoundrels constantly trying to trap Jesus so they could get him out of the way. But if we paint them in such one-dimensional ways, we miss the deeper undercurrents of the friction between faith and practice which is the crux of so many of these conflicts. When the Pharisees see Jesus’ disciples eating their food without going through the proper purification rituals, they are livid because a fundamental aspect of the law is being ignored. While the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” isn’t actually in the Bible, it was the guiding principle behind the Pharisees’ statements here. Cleanliness or purity was a crucial part of how the Jews lived out their faith according the law God gave to them through Moses. And the Pharisees were all about making sure you followed the law, because that was their primary way of relating to God.

One of the reasons for the emphasis on purity laws was practical. Things get dirty, including hands, and it’s probably a good idea to make washing them a regular practice before you use them to put something in your mouth. Jews believed that uncleanliness was transferrable to other people, plates and cups, and clothes, so there were laws to make sure you didn’t transfer your germs. When you’re sharing your roasted tomato hummus with the guy who just trimmed his sheep’s hooves and then wiped his nose with his sleeve, you want to know he’s obeyed the purity laws.

But there are deeper issues here than sanitation. There’s the issue of commitment. As I said, the Jews’ primary way of relating to God was through the law. If you followed the law, you were in good standing. If you didn’t follow the law, there were consequences. In that sense, the law was used to determine who was in and who was out, and the Pharisees were perplexed that Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, would be OK with his followers not doing what the law commanded. To them, this was a lack of commitment on Jesus’ part.

Finally, there’s an even deeper issue of identity at play here. The rituals the Jews underwent not only made them faithful followers of the law, but also set them apart from the pagan cultures around them. At this point in history, the Roman empire and the Hellenization of the culture was taking over, and minorities like the Jews had to work even harder to assert and maintain their unique identity. Things like the ritual of circumcision and the dietary laws set the Jews apart from those around them. These markers were so central to their identity that many Jews chose to be killed rather than violate the laws by eating pork. These purity laws were not a matter of convenience. They were life-and-death commitments. And Jesus has come along and rendered them null and void with his statement, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” He’s fundamentally redefining what it means to faithfully follow God, so you can see the Pharisees have a right to be upset.

But so does Jesus. When the Pharisees speak up and question him, while their motives may have been valid, their methods weren’t. Imagine someone standing up in the middle of our prayer time and shouting, “Hey! That lady didn’t bow her head and close her eyes! And that guy is checking his text messages instead of praying! What kind of slacker church are you running here?” Jesus counterattacks, accusing the Pharisees of majoring in the minors, calling them hypocrites and citing their own scriptures from Isaiah to call them out. The Pharisees’ problem, Jesus says, is that they pay lip service to the purity laws while paying no attention to how they are treating other people. They are more worried about washing their hands than cleansing their hearts, and they’ve lost of the spirit of God’s law.

The Pharisees have done what many of us do. They have taken God’s word and interpreted it so they could apply it to everyday life. Nothing wrong with that! We do it all the time. Scripture couldn’t possibly address every possible situation that might come up, so at some point we have to make decisions about how to apply what the Bible says. And the more that is done, the more it becomes a part of standard practice, and if you practice it enough, it becomes a tradition. The Bible doesn’t say a thing about how often to do communion or if churches should have stained-glass windows or whether you should baptize babies. Our ancestors read it, made some decisions, put those decisions into practice, and handed down to us these traditions, just as the Pharisees were passing on traditions about how to live out the purity laws.

And yet, Jesus says, the Pharisees have become so tied to tradition that it has blinded them from the practicality of living a Godly life. The example he uses relates to honoring our parents and this bizarre idea of Corban, money set aside for another use. Let me illustrate it by telling on myself. Back in seminary, I always squirreled away my Christmas and birthday money so I could use to it to splurge on stuff I wanted, mainly baseball cards and action figures. One year, we were running short on money, and Leigh recommended we use some of that money for less important things, like paying bills and feeding our infant daughter. What?!? How could you even suggest such a thing! This money was set aside for a specific use, so you can’t use it for something else, no matter how important.

That’s what the Pharisees had done. They had used the excuse of setting aside money to give God an offering so that they didn’t have to use that money to help their parents. It’s like a thirsty man using a cup of water to ritually wash his hands instead of taking a drink to save his life. Jesus is saying to the Pharisees that their devotion to tradition has superseded the actual doing of God’s work in this world. And what’s more, the things that were coming out of them – theft, greed, wickedness, and such – were much, much more defiling than what was going in.

So does this mean tradition is bad? By no means! Tradition grounds us in who we are and where we’ve been. Conversely, not all innovation is good. New things can be just as stifling or rigid as traditional things. The defining criteria of faithfulness is not whether something is old or new, it is whether or not it is life-giving and faithful to who God calls us to be.

And it starts on the inside, not the outside. We could name a lot of behaviors that we believe contribute to our faith – attending worship, giving generously to the church, praying, helping others. These are all important. But if an apple has a rotten core, you can’t make it better by painting the outside red. Purity starts from within. No matter how pious our outward actions, we have to begin cleaning things up by looking within.

This past week, I got caught up in a situation that brought this home. As you all know, there was a very important event that took place a few days ago not to far from here. It was really an honor to have this so close and the area got caught up in all the festivities. In the event itself, two adversaries squared off, each doing their best to highlight the other’s weakness and gain an advantage. It was contentious, at times even edgy. Of course, I’m taking about the baseball playoff game between the Reds and the Giants. As I was watching the game, I was also checking a message board online, reading comments from fellow fans. One especially pessimistic writer was strongly criticizing my Reds, making ridiculous statements that were pushing my buttons. So I fired back with a snarky statement mocking his bad spelling and grammar. Ha! That showed him.

And then I read this passage. “It’s not what goes in that defiles, it’s what comes out.” Was this guy’s grammar incorrect? It sure was. He had broken a grammatical law. His spelling was impure. But was my response appropriate, sensitive, a reflection of who God had called me to be? Absolutely not. Jesus didn’t specifically list it, but I’m sure snarkiness should be on his list of vices that come from within us. I was completely wrong to respond the way I did. “The things that come out, that’s what defiles a person.”

I wonder what traditions we hold onto that keep us from more fully developing our faith and make it easier for us to decide who’s in and who’s out. Too many churches use their style of music or type of service or doctrinal beliefs as identity markers, defining themselves over and against others who do or believe things differently. What we would do well to remember is that our identity does not come from any of those things, but from the One who created us. And that is just as true for the people who don’t play by our rules or live out their faith in the same way.

Too often the prevailing belief in religious communities is that if we can just get rid of the dirty people, we’d be a lot better. The world would be safer. Our churches would be purer. But if we got rid of the dirty people, none of us would be here, because each one of us can find something of Jesus’ list that has come out of our hearts. Each one of us. Thank God for Jesus, who got his hands dirty for us, who entered into this messy world in order to make us clean.


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