Mark 7. 1-8, 14-23
May I speak in the name of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, One God in three persons.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has some good news and some bad news to offer the pharisees, the crowds, and his disciples. In a nutshell, the good news is that ritual defilement is not as big a concern as his audience thought. The bad news is, that the problem of evil in the world is not something that comes from ‘out there’, it comes from human hearts.
Having spent five weeks in John’s ‘Bread of Life Discourse’ we are now back in the Gospel of Mark. We have been reflecting on Jesus as the food that lasts forever and today, we have heard him giving some strong teaching that arose because of the rules around how earthly food should be consumed.
This is one of those passages which has been significant for me in my growth in understanding scripture. It brought me an ‘ah hah’ moment when I was in class with Fr Brendan Byrne and was one of many occasions when I realised how much I gloss over when I read a passage of scripture.
Fr Brendan asked us what we could learn from the fact that Mark’s Gospel spends time explaining about the Jewish rules for washing cups, pots and bronze kettles. After we had spent some time theorizing, he pointed out the obvious inference that Mark’s audience were not Jewish. There is no need to explain to Jewish people that they have rules about ritual cleanliness; they know! It is only people from outside that tradition who need the explanation.
This is a significant detail. The Jewish laws regarding ritual cleanliness, or purity, were initially intended as instructions for the priests as they prepared to enter the holy place of God’s presence. By Jesus’ time many of these laws had been extended to the people. They were important as a way of demonstrating due reverence for God but also as a way of defining religious and ethnic identity. For a people under occupation, keeping the law was a means of preserving identity in the midst of those who wanted to obliterate them.
We might think of it as being similar to the choice to wear robes and observe traditional Anglican worship. These are choices that we make in order to show that God is holy and that in part, we worship God by using beautiful, precious things, and by behaving in ways that are distinctive and reverent.
There is a paradox at work here. We do not have to pretend with God. We come to God exactly as we are, and nothing we can do can make us worthy to be in God’s presence. However, at the same time, because we know that God is holy, we choose to behave in ways that show our reverence, our awe, and our desire to offer our best to God.
We can see the same kind of thing at work in the lives of the Jewish people of Jesus’ time. There was an expectation in the law that people would become ritually unclean. It simply happened as part of life. We know that it was expected because the law also provides ways to become clean again. So, the Jewish people, as they approached God, would make themselves clean and pure.
Another important thing to recognise therefore, is that there is a difference between ritual impurity and sin. This is one of the things that Jesus makes clear when he speaks about the difference between physical things that go into and out of the body, and the intentions that come from the human heart. Jesus is not showing disrespect for the purity laws, but he is saying that there are far more important things than laws when it comes to the human relationship with God.
Jesus offers some good news and some bad news. Ritual defilement should not be of overwhelming concern, the much greater issue is that the problem of evil in the world is not something that comes from ‘out there’, it comes from human hearts.
The great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer addresses this same concern. Bonhoeffer is well known for his critique of Christians who want to abdicate responsibility for personal decisions by hiding behind piety. Jesus does not call us to be passive onlookers in the world. He does not want us to simply quote the Bible as though that solves all the problems of the world.
In October 1938, in the face of the power of the Nazi party, Bonhoeffer wrote to a group of young clergy on what it means to be obedient to scripture. He warns that Scripture should not be used for our own ends. It should not be used to prove that I am right, you are wrong, and they are downright evil. Or that God loves my way of doing things, he tolerates yours, but they are going to hell.
This, of course, happens all the time. People use the scriptures to justify, amongst other things, anti-semitism, homophobia, violence against women, and a desire for personal prosperity. To do this is to abuse the gift of scripture.
In opening the International Bonhoeffer Congress in Poland in 2006, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke about Bonhoeffer’s views on this. I would like to read you some of what he said.
It is not that we can solve the dramatic personal question, ‘What shall I do?’ by a simple appeal to the Bible, so that we are relieved of the burden of human ambiguity and even human sinfulness and error. The Bible, says Bonhoeffer, is not interested in resolving personal dramas of choice. What matters is that what we say or do or choose points to the truth of Christ. In itself it is always going to be in some degree in need of forgiveness; but it is ‘right’ to the extent that it displays the truth of Christ. ‘It is our way to let Jesus Christ find us in this way. Christ is the truth. The sole truth of our way is that we should be found in this truth’ (The Way to Freedom, 176).
As a programme, as a set of solutions, this is not going to be the answer to our divisions and quarrels as churches today. But if this is the language in which we are prepared to think about and pray about our struggles, we shall have learned from Bonhoeffer what above all he has to teach us: Christ equips us to say no to those falsehoods which allow us to ignore the places where he is to be found.1
Bonhoeffer reminds us that Jesus’ words in Mark’s Gospel today are a call to recognise that the power of sin in our own lives is of far greater concern than ritual purity. They challenge us to recognise who it is that we consider to be impure, unclean, dirty, contaminated. There is a sense of safety in the belief that we know what to do and that we do it properly. Jesus calls us to step out from behind that safety, not to stop doing the things that enable us to approach God, but to stop making those things, those behaviours, those ways of being, into barriers for other people.
Our piety is of no value unless it is matched by behaviour towards God, self and neighbour that indicates that our allegiance is to God, not the law. This is a sobering teaching. It is teaching that requires that we grow up in our faith, that we not content ourselves with outward forms but that, as we worship God with reverence and beauty, we also reach out in active, practical love of the whole of God’s good creation.
The bad news is that it is out of the human heart that evil actions come. The challenge is to grow in awareness and courage to face the evil of our own hearts. The good news is that Jesus is stronger than those things that make for death. That he is our way and our truth, and that it is in him that we shall live.