Choose Love, not Customs
Meditation on the 18th Sunday after Trinity
Mark 7; 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, hey noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and 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.) So 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?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
Most of us like a bit of tradition. It might be a family tradition that you do every year, or a personal tradition that you have kept since childhood like watching the Proms on the TV, or it might be a church tradition that we hold very dear. Tradition is a powerful thing. It grounds us. It shapes us. It gives us practices that bind us together in communities large and small. It gives us structure, form and order which should help to keep us on the straight and narrow. This was true for our spiritual ancestors as well. According to the religious establishment in first century Palestine, the “right way” to practice faith involved washing. Washing hands. Washing food. Washing pots and pans. Purity was central to religious observance, not because the scribes and Pharisees were obsessed with hygiene, but because cleanliness was part of a being the “holy nation” that God commanded the people of Israel to be. Just like the priests who washed their hands before entering the temple and every member of this community went through a washing ritual before sitting down to eat. It was a way of setting mealtime apart as sacred.
As a people who have a communion table at the centre of our common life, this is something we can understand. The ritual of washing hands before eating is not inherently problematic. For modern readers with an understanding of germs, it just seems like common sense. The past 20 months of living through a Pandemic it is certainly more than tradition, or even common sense, it is part of a life-saving ritual we have all been engaged in.
In this passage from Mark the hand washing practice becomes the object of scrutiny. And rightly so, for it is no longer serving the purpose for which it was intended. When the religious leaders encounter Jesus, they immediately point out that his disciples are eating with unclean hands. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” the Pharisees ask. Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition? There is the issue at hand. This young preacher and his disciples are not following the tradition of the elders. The time-honoured ritual of washing hands before meals has been forgotten or even worse discarded, as Jesus and the twelve spend their time and energy on more important things like healing the sick and feeding the hungry. Now we are not talking about a quick splosh under the tap here but a formulated ritual, hands steeped and water poured over them, then hands facing downwards and more water poured, then hands immersed in a deep bowl and finally the hands had to dry before they could touch anything or they would have to start all over again.
The religious leaders who were always looking for ways to discredit Jesus focus on this break with tradition. It is just like today where we see political opponents looking for any opportunity to mount a smear campaign, if a member of the opposite side step out of line. The Pharisees zero in on what his disciples have done wrong. Can you see it now, plastered across the headlines in the Galilee News: “Jesus of Nazareth: The anti-tradition candidate.”
But Jesus is ready for them and turns their critique into a teaching moment: He chastises the scribes and Pharisees for putting man-made human ritual over the teachings of God, and declares: “It is not what goes in to a person, but what comes out from the human heart that defiles.” He reminds them of the commandments God gave the people Israel so that they might live as a holy nation: Thou shalt not kill; though shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness and loving God with heart, soul, and mind, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. Demonstrating our faith by the words and deeds that flow from our hearts, not by half-hearted adherence to empty rituals. But the scribes and Pharisees had lost sight of God’s law, the practice of washing before meals has become a way of determining who is clean and who is defiled, who is in and who is out.
We are not immune to this pitfall either. Rituals change, think back to church services when you were a child. Traditions evolve, and can become exclusive - this is the way we do it here. People trying to join such a community are immediately on the back foot, and can be made to feel stupid if they are not following the set tradition. Remaining faithful to God's law of love is our unchanging challenge.
Some of you might remember the film Chocolat. It is the story of a woman named Vianne, who wanders into a tranquil French village in 1959 and shocks the townspeople by opening a chocolate shop during Lent. This village is stubbornly rooted in tradition. The residents have a rigid understanding of right and wrong, of how they are and are not supposed to act. Every week the church is full though some are sleeping through the sermon. As they enter the holy season of Lent, they practice penance and self-denial but for all their piety they have forgotten how to offer grace, to practice compassion, and to extend welcome to new people.
This becomes evident when Vianne an unmarried mother and her daughter come to the village. She dresses in bold colours and off-the shoulder tops, and she refuses to go to church. If that wasn’t bad enough Vianne takes in a woman fleeing an abusive marriage, and of course there is the issue of the chocolate shop; Vianne shamelessly tempts the villagers to break the Lenten fast. Some view her with curiosity, others with disapproval, but the mayor, sees everything she represents as a threat. He is a 1950’s Pharisee flaunting his piety. He mounts a smear campaign, against Vianne until the villagers are too nervous to set foot in her shop. He is on a crusade to preserve tradition and protect his village from anything that might corrupt or defile. But just like the leaders of Jesus’ day he has become so fixated on religious ritual and quest for holiness, he has forgotten how to love God, and to love his neighbour.
It is Vianne who most embodies the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She is the one who practices hospitality and welcomes those others have cast aside. She models generosity and treats everyone with kindness. Over time, through her example and her care families are reconciled, outsiders are included, and the community comes alive. The wind that blew Vianne into this French town (we might call it might call it the Holy Spirit) inspires the whole community to become more loving, more joyful, and more faithful to the commandments of God. It is of course just a moral story but serves to remind us how easy it is to lose sight of God’s law of love and to fixate on customs that separate and practices that divide. We need to constantly pray for the Holy Spirit to blow in, freeing us to let go of empty rituals and stale traditions, and to embrace the Holy Spirit who inspires us to practice generosity, to offer compassion and a welcome to all regardless of race or creed and who gives us the grace to remain faithful to God’s law of love. Amen