Thursday, September 10, 2015

Dirty Hands

Pentecost 14 B, August 30, 2015
Mark 7:1-23Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and 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.) 5So 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?” 6He 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;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

The blessing still used by Jewish people today when they wash their hands and remember the commandment
Most of us wash our hands before eating, right? Or we at least agree that it’s a good idea. It seems like a pretty simple thing- don’t eat yucky germs. Even if we didn’t know about microbes and diseases, it still seems pretty basic. So why doesn’t Jesus teach his disciples to wash their hands before dinner?

Image result for stop sign
Doesn't matter what it says, we know what to do. Rules in action.
Before we answer that question, let’s talk about rules. What are the rules you live by? How did you come to follow them? Most likely, you learned some from your parents, some from your school, some from work, some from church, and some from just observing the world. We all live by many different rules that guide us throughout our days- from when we wash our hands or brush our teeth or what you do when you see a red, octagon next to the road.

As human beings, we create rules to prevent problems in the future. At their best, rules are meant to pass on the learned wisdom from previous experiences, to keep us from repeating past mistakes. But rules always carry the shadow side of legalism. If we follow rules simply to follow rules, that’s problematic.

In the Old Testament, we hear the words, “Give heed to the statues and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” The statutes and ordinances- the rules and laws- were made so that God’s people would have a rich life together, that the community would be strengthened.  They were meant as a gift to the people.

Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law by Marc Chagall
Before we go much further, we should remember out loud that the gift of these statutes and ordinances was bigger than most of us realize. It wasn’t just the 10 Commandments, but the 613 laws outlined in the Old Testament, and they governed not just how you spent the Sabbath or treated your parents or neighbors but included guides on how God’s people loaned money, treated women who were menstruating, how to spin yarn, what to do about baldness, and a whole host of other things as well. God’s people were supposed to follow these rules together. By doing so, they would be instantly recognizable as a part of the group. You didn’t have to ask- hey is that person Jewish? You would just know- by how they were acting and what they looked like.

Although some of the rules seem odd to us today, there were reasons they existed, and the law was meant to unite the community with God, to teach them ways that cared for all the people and didn’t create systems of injustice. They were meant as a gift that gave life to God’s people and keep the community strong so they could live under God’s rule and not under the oppressive rule of foreign powers.

Copyright Dan Erlander,
But somewhere along the way, things changed and things fell apart.

What the people hoped the Messiah would do.
By the time Jesus was born, there was a theory held by some that if they just got back to following all the rules, then they could restore the community and God would reward their religious purity by sending the Messiah to kick out the Romans. They got pretty serious about following the rules- all the rules- and making everyone else do so as well.

That brings us to Jesus and the gospel today, and also James and his comments about following rules.  James pretty much said that pure religion is caring for orphans and widows in their distress and staying unstained in the world. The first seems pretty straightforward, the second sounds rather impossible, by the way. Living in the world means that we are part of it- stains and all.

The good news is that Jesus comes into this confusing mess- where good and life-giving rules can be co-opted and twisted and misused to oppress people- and he comes along with freedom for us all.  Jesus doesn’t turn everyone into a rebel, but he does put the rules back into their proper place. He tells the Pharisees that God’s commandments are more important than human traditions. And then he tells them that evil intentions are what pollute- not breaking cleanliness rules.

Nobody's perfect
So back to that question about why Jesus doesn’t make the disciples wash their hands before dinner. I’m not sure exactly why Jesus took this stance, but I can imagine that by eating with unwashed hands, Jesus’ disciples showed that they weren’t perfect and they weren’t above anyone else and they certainly weren’t Pharisees. They showed that they were in need of God’s grace just as much as any other rule-breaker out there. Moreover Jesus still chose to hang out with them and love them and teach them.

So I say to you, that this Jesus I know from the gospel is the one who will love you no matter what. No matter what rules we have broken or will break, there is nothing that can keep God from loving you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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