Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Proper 17 / Year B
The framers of the Lectionary readings have it in for me. After five weeks on the theme of bread, today they give me this… “It is not what goes into a person that makes one unclean, but rather what comes out.” Not exactly the teaching on which I want to muse just two days after a colonoscopy! If ever there was a Sunday to omit the sermon and move straight to the Creed, this is it. But I will attempt to battle through my recent unpleasantness and try to say something about this reading which will inspire (and not lead to dozens of you calling the bishop’s office in the morning to complain!).
It occurs to me as children each of our parents asked us the same question when we sat down at the dinner table: “Did you wash your hands?” I recall getting in real trouble once when I said I had, but my father wanted to conduct an inspection. Well, I had washed my hands, but it was what in NASCAR they refer to as a ‘splash and go.’ With dirt still evident, my father deemed I had lied to him and while I don’t recall what form of punishment he administered, to this day I believe it was unwarranted. I also learned to be more thorough in my washing rituals moving forward.
It is not often we read a story from a gospel and want to side with the Pharisees and scribes against Jesus, but today is just such a day. There is something… well… gross about pondering the disciples not washing their hands before eating and there is something stomach-turning about them not washing their food prior to eating it and there is something downright disturbing about eating from dishes and drinking from cups that have not been washed.
I once served at a church where the Women’s group had a monthly pot-luck lunch to which I was invited. One of the ladies, Laura, was way up in years and well past the prime of her abilities. At my first lunch, one of the other members took me aside and said, “Make sure to take some of Laura’s corn pudding so as not to offend her, but whatever you do, don’t eat it. Let’s just say she does not keep a clean kitchen.” I can just imagine being at a disciple’s BBQ and St. Andrew walks up to me, grimy hands and all, and says, “Have some of the potato salad. I made it myself.” Um, no thanks.
While our natural inclination is to side with the bad guys on this point, if we do so we will miss the point. You see, they are not accusing Jesus’s followers of being unsanitary, they hold them to be ritually unclean. In other words, because they did not engage in certain specific religious traditions, the Pharisees and scribes contend the disciples have rendered themselves unfit in God’s eyes. They have an answer for the great question posed by the 15th Psalm: “Lord, who may abide in your presence?” Not these fellows with the dirty hands and unwashed dishes, say the Pharisees and scribes.
Think of it this way. Suppose when we come to the Confession physical limitations make it difficult or impossible for you to kneel. Does this mean you are ineligible to receive communion? Does this make you ‘ritually unclean’? The Pharisees and scribes would say ‘yes’, but Jesus says ‘no.’ And we get it. A person’s knees can be firmly bent and planted on the ground and yet the words coming out of the mouth are rote and empty, while the person sitting in a pew a few feet away confesses things done and left undone from a deep and authentic place in the heart.
When Jesus says it is not what goes into a person which makes one unclean, but what comes out, he is accurate in a very narrow sense. All of our rituals and ceremonials may be helpful spiritual aids, but none justifies us. They are not an end unto themselves, but can be a means to greater devotion and more faithful living. Who cares if you scrub the utensils in the way approved by the elders down through the ages if you still are a thoroughly rotten human being! So from the perspective of rituals, doing or not doing them does not mean a person is clean or unclean. Washing your hands does not automatically mean you can abide in God’s presence.
But in a wider sense, what goes into our bodies has a way of shaping what comes out. It influences who we are, what we know, what we value, and how we act. Did you see the study which was released this week from the University of Michigan where researchers examined how specific food consumption effects life expectancy? Among their findings is this: every hot dog you eat takes 36 minutes off of your life. In our day and age we have a heightened sense of the relationship between diet and health – what goes in and what it does to us.
But more than this, we are aware of how the exterior world has a way of shaping our interior life. We worry about how violence in video games shapes teenage boys. We worry about how dubious role models flaunting promiscuous clothing shapes teenage girls. We worry about how prolonged exposure to extreme media outlets is shaping our citizenry.
When I served at the church in Richmond we undertook a building program to add a connecting wing to unite the freestanding church with the freestanding parish hall. One part of the project involved relocating the church offices from the basement of one building to the main level in the new addition. The budget was tight, but by the grace of God we were able to get it done. But it took everything we had to get the building up. The new offices had no furniture, no book cases, no nothing. My desk was a folding table and my office was littered with boxes of unpacked books and pictures which had nowhere to be displayed. It was chaos and it was affecting me in numerous ways. At a monthly meeting of a small group of clergy I described my situation and frustration. Our group’s facilitator said something I will never forget, “We all need our exterior world to project the kind of order and calm we want to experience in our interior life. When our exterior world is in chaos, our interior world suffers."
The relationship between the interior world and the exterior world is dynamic to be sure. The exterior world affects us in ways we are aware and in ways we are not. I suspect each one of us here this morning desires in some form or fashion to have our interior world affect for the good the exterior world around us. Jesus describes some of the negative ways the interior can shape the exterior: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly” – all of these even though you have washed your hands and dishes correctly. If this is the influence you bring to the world, Jesus says you are defiled.
In his letter to the Church in Galatia, St. Paul describes what he calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’, interior qualities which well up in us as we allow God to work on us, in us, and through us: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23). Rather than those things which defile, the Apostle notes a person operating from these interior qualities does not need ‘the Law’ to guide them because they are the living embodiment of the intent of the Law.
We often say going to church makes me a better person. By this, I think we mean it helps us to be more aware of the relationship between the exterior world and our interior life and the kind of impact each can have on the other. Being here can be like taking a dirty, broken-down clunker through a car wash. It will make the car look clean and shiny on the outside, but it won’t make it run any better. Or, this can be one of many places where we bare our heart and soul to God and dedicate ourselves to the missional purpose of making God’s love known in and through everything we do.
So, in a few moments, when you come to the rail to receive communion, I will not ask if you have washed your hands. In fact, I won’t ask you any question at all. But if I could, it might be this: “What mark is the world making on you and what mark are you making on the world?”