Listening to these verses from Mark’s Gospel can feel a little like walking in on a family argument.
Something’s going on here from the very beginning but we’re not quite sure what it is! Something about not washing hands! Sounds like a discussion parents have with their children before every meal!
Rules of purity from ancient Judaism often strike modern people as somewhere on the spectrum between bizarre to puzzling, and at best, unimportant and irrelevant. These purity rules created a world with sharp social boundaries between clean and unclean, between righteous and sinner, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.
It is painful to hear these verses and tempting to walk away from them. We find it all too easy to dismiss these in-house disagreements between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees as embarrassing and inappropriate. There’s a dangerous tone to this passage. Verses have been omitted. How do we probe deep enough to hear the heart of the Gospel message without getting stuck on the surface?
What we do know is that Jesus and his disciples are gathered together for a meal, relaxing. The Pharisees and scribes come in, looking to Jesus to explain why his disciples have not first washed their hands.
If I understand the purity codes correctly, they really were created out of a desire to build community. We certainly heard this spoken of in a positive way in our text from Deuteronomy.
Unfortunately, by the time of Jesus, the purity laws created community based on the culture of setting people apart. Surely, these laws created community, but did so by segregating people, separating people who believed differently, people who acted differently, people who were ill. Surely, these purity codes did create community—two separate communities: one pure; and one impure.
We know the stories of lepers, a menstruating woman, tax collectors, a prodigal son who becomes a swineherd, people possessed by demons, people cast out! These all belonged to the community of the impure.
And on the other side of the tracks were those who meticulously maintained the code of law— the acceptable ones!
But such was not the message and activity of Jesus! In fact, what a total difference! In Jesus we find a totally different social vision. In Jesus we find a community shaped, not by the politics of purity, the politics of segregation, but by a culture of compassion.
Jesus came precisely to set people free from the burdens of such laws. Jesus came precisely to unburden people from the harsh traditions of their past! Jesus came preaching a prophetic witness so that the church today must be the instrument of liberation and Good News!
The truth of the Gospel can never drown in a politic where we choose who is saint and who is sinner. The truth of the Gospel must confront what too often has become a crisis of both identity and mission in the church today, coming to believe that we have the right, even a right ordained by God, to create our own set of purity laws.
There is a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., that bears repeating here today. At one point in his preaching he was using a text from Luke’s Gospel where Jesus was headed to Jerusalem to die, and Jesus says to his disciples that “it is you who have stood by me through my trials.” Reverend King suggests that it is the vocation of the church to stand by the truth, especially when the truth is on trial.
In today’s Gospel, with Jesus, his disciples and the Pharisees, it is the traditions of ancient Judaism that defines community by separation rather than by compassion that are on trial around that table.
At the outset of Jesus’ ministry he challenges us to “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” There’s the Gospel truth!
In many ways, the scriptures for this weekend all seem to be about action. The N.T. text from the letter of James is where we here at St. James take our mission statement, “Be doers of the word, and not just hearers…” (James 1:27). The Word of God is justice and compassion! To hear God’s word of compassion is to become God’s justice for the world! To hear Christ’s word is to make real Christ’s presence to those around us!
Outward religious practices and human laws that leave us religiously self-satisfied render us hollow and dry. Religious laws meticulously memorized and practiced lose sight of a living loving relationship with God in all our sisters and brothers.
In every celebration of baptism (Mia Isabelle last evening and Thomas Bennet this morning), God acts to empower the church for mission. At every celebration of baptism, as a community we affirm our discipleship in the world. God calls Christians to use their various vocations and ministries to witness to the Gospel of Christ wherever we serve or work.
This is a good reminder for this Labor Day weekend. As baptized people, we see our daily life as a place to carry out our vocation, our calling. All aspects of life, home and school, community and nation, work and leisure, all belong to God. All are places where God calls us to serve.
In Christ we have been set free to risk in discovering and creating new possibilities in shaping the Body of Christ into a beloved community where all people are welcome in God’s mercy and love. Amen.