Sermon text: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Did you ever notice that Jesus saves his sharpest barbs and most pointed criticisms for the people who were the most religious?
Jesus doesn’t tear down the tax collectors and the prostitutes. He doesn’t target criminals or those with loose morals. No. It’s the Pharisees. It’s the scribes. The very people who were supposed to be experts of God, religion, and God’s law. These are the highest achievers of religious piety. And yet, they are the hypocrites and Jesus says that they’ve abandoned their commitment to God for the sake of human tradition. They have lost their way.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been conditioned to see the Pharisees and scribes in the worst possible light. That is patently unfair to these groups, but that is how they are portrayed in the gospels. They’re come across as self-righteous hypocrites. And momma always said to keep your distance from self-righteous hypocrites. And my seminary professors always said to keep away from people who try to earn salvation by obeying the law.
But the truth, the honest to God’s truth, is that the scribes and Pharisees understood that God choose Israel. God called Israel. They had been given a gift, the law, to order their lives in the way God desired. They observed the law and it made Israel different, it was a showcase of identity to the nations around them—all done to glorify God.
In the Book of Exodus, God tasks the people of Israel to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” in the midst of all their diverse neighbors. For hundreds of years that task remained the same. The Pharisees developed as a group that took this calling seriously. They would be a priestly kingdom. The mission would be accomplished, and to carry the mission out better they interpreted the laws concerning priests serving in the temple and applied those laws to all God’s people and all aspects of life.
For example, priests serving in the temple were required to ritually wash their hands before entering a holy place or offering a sacrifice. They were to use warm, soapy water, scrub vigorously for 20 seconds, or enough time to sing Happy Birthday, twice. So the Pharisees took the priestly example and expanded it, believing all Jews should ritually wash their hands before meals, thereby making every meal sacred. This pattern was expanded into most every aspect of life, trying to bring everything under the umbrella of God’s law.
The Pharisees used the law to build a fence. They were trying to preserve the Jewish faith and way of life, which was the priority in the middle of a Roman occupation. Their concern about Jesus and his disciples’ handwashing went beyond proper hygiene. They saw this carelessness as a threat to their traditions and identity. In their eyes this jeopardized the sanctity of God’s law.
I liken this group to immigrants who come to the United States and try to keep their culture alive in a new world, struggling to maintain their identity and sense of self and history through language, food, religion, and holiday traditions. It’s like the family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding trying to maintain their Greek heritage in modern day Chicago.
The Pharisees had legitimate concerns. Why, then, do they receive such a harsh response from Jesus? Listen again to the quote Jesus gives from the Prophet Isaiah: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.
According to Jesus, the problem with the Pharisees and scribes was their focus on the externals of faithfulness—what we call piety—that they neglected to examine their own hearts. Their efforts to live in faithfully constructed walls brought alienation instead of drawing them closer to God and neighbor. Their rituals created a spiritual hierarchy between the “clean” and the “unclean.” Instead of expressing God’s holiness, ritual purity became a way to exclude others.
Although we’ve been conditioned to turn away from the scribes and Pharisees, I suspect we have more in common with them than we’d care to admit. Like the Pharisees we know that God has called us, and that is a gift. In response to God’s call we want to live in the ways that God desires for us.
The problem is that as we attempt to live in ways we consider faithful, there is always the temptation to judge those who live differently. Who are the people we try to keep at a safe distance today? Who do we consider unclean, dangerous, undesirable? Who do we wish to keep on the outside?
The mentally ill
The undocumented worker
The welfare recipient
The drug addict
The convicted felon
The person for whom English is a second language
The person of color
The paranoidly cautious
Who do you keep on the outside?
Across our news, embedded in our public and political rhetoric, in the chaos of the pandemic, and in every sphere of social media I see the temptation to set ourselves above and apart from others. It’s part of our DNA. People have always argued their rights to a better claim on titles, land, property, access, privilege…we’re even tempted to believe that we are more deserving of God’s grace than others.
If that happens then we’ve lost the whole point of faithfulness. Jesus tells us to beware when piety gets in the way of fulfilling the heart of the law: loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. Jesus warns us to beware when our piety, when our practice, separates us from others, for then it is also separating us from God.
Nothing outside of us can defile by going in. Instead, it’s what comes out of our hearts that defiles and does great harm to others. We don’t need the devil in the mix, we just need ourselves.
No law, no tradition can protect us from the darkness lurking in our hearts. We can project a squeaky-clean image, but one way or another, the corrupt finds a way to the surface. The polished, shined, and highly edited version of ourselves crumbles sooner or later. The façade comes crashing down.
This Gospel passage is a heavy one, convicting us left and right. Where exactly is the good news? Where is the gospel here?
For me, this passage demonstrates that although Jesus sees the ugliness of the human heart he does not turn away. Jesus sees right through our photoshopped lives and knows what lurks in our hearts, and yet he still loves us. He still cares for us. He still lays down his life for us.
In the larger story of the Gospel, Jesus shows us what true faithfulness is by daring to touch those considered unclean, by daring to love those who are social outcasts, by loving and serving and giving his life for all people—tax collectors and sinners, lepers and the demon-possessed, scribes, Pharisees, you, me.
The good news exercises a claim on our lives and calls us to follow. Following doesn’t mean we separated ourselves from people who are different. Following means that like Jesus, we roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, serving everyone, even those the world casts aside. Following means doing what it takes to serve those around us. Following means that our heart looks like Christ’s, and they break for the world. AMEN