FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Our lessons this week focus on what is “clean” and “unclean;” on what qualities are required of one who would approach a holy God in worship; and on what it means to “keep your soul diligently” by obeying the Commandments. These were deep concerns of the Pharisees who, I believe, have gotten a bum rap from Christian preachers over the centuries. These folks were mindful that their call to be God’s chosen people set them apart from all other nations, tribes and peoples. They understood that their lives were to reflect the generosity and compassion God had demonstrated toward them throughout their history. The rituals they observed were designed to remind them that each moment of every day belonged to the Lord; each activity was an opportunity for worship; all the good things in daily life were gifts from the generous hand of a God who never tires of giving. It comes in poor grace for us mainline protestants, whose lives differ so little from those around us that no one would know we were affiliated with a church unless they bothered to ask, to criticize the Pharisees for desiring to give expression to their identity as God’s people. I could wish that my own church were a bit more “Pharisaic.”
But there is a danger inherent in pursuing holiness. In their zeal to keep the Torah, the Pharisees developed “the traditions of the elders.” These statutes, though not specifically grounded in Torah, nevertheless spelled out what the teachers of the law believed to be the natural implications of Torah obedience. These rules formed a “hedge” around the Torah to ensure that nobody ever got close enough to the commandments to break them. The problem is that they also prevented one from getting close enough to keep them. Sometimes faithfulness to the traditions blinded the Pharisees to the demands of the law and even provided convenient excuses for avoiding the divine commandments. What is “legal” does not always equate with what is “holy.”
What was true of the Pharisees is no less so for Christians. White evangelical Christians experience scruples over baking a cake for the reception of a same sex wedding yet, according to a recent poll, they also overwhelmingly support a presidential candidate who promises to boot eleven million resident aliens out of the country if elected. Can you guess which of these two activities the Bible actually condemns? If you are in doubt, check out Leviticus 19:33-34. Apart from the requirement of leaving the yeast out of Passover bread, I can’t find any other passages that regulate baking. Oddly enough though, Saint Paul tells us that “if your enemy is hungry, feed him…” Romans 12:20. So it seems to me that, even if you do regard a same sex couple as the enemy, baking a cake for them is precisely what you should be doing. Amazing what you learn when you actually read the Bible instead of letting politicians tell you what it says!
The sad truth is that Christians are just as guilty (perhaps more so) of reading the Bible through the lens of their preconceived, culturally conditioned notions of “clean” and “unclean” as were the Pharisees. We have allowed our economic interests, professional ambitions, racial prejudices, cultural biases and national loyalties to distort the commandments into instruments of hatred and exclusion. We are allowing the good news of Jesus Christ to be drowned out by the self-righteous, preachy-screechy moralism of an angry minority imagining that its own self-made “values” embody God’s commands. Jesus is speaking directly to us in this week’s gospel: “you have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” Mark 7:9.
I don’t believe the Pharisees were entirely off base. They recognized that, for followers of a God who frees the slave, cares for the oppressed and seeks the good of the least, some things truly are unclean and must be avoided. They were simply confused, as are we, about what those things are. So perhaps we ought to ask, what is truly unclean for us? The automobiles we drive that contribute to global warming and ecological imbalance? The food we consume that is produced at bargain prices by undervalued and underpaid labor? The television programs and movies that flood our living rooms with violence, exploitive sex and stimulate our endless appetite for unsustainable consumption? Firearms designed for no other purpose than to kill people?
In the final analysis, the critical question is not so much about what is to be avoided as what is to be pursued. Jesus has told us that the two greatest commandments (which in reality are one command) are to love God and to love our neighbor. Nowhere is God’s holiness better seen than in the face of another created in God’s image. There is no other way to love God than loving God’s creatures. These love commands determine the shape of any and all tradition-not the other way around.
The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and last of the five making up the “Books of Moses” or the “Pentateuch.” Literally translated, the word “Deuteronomy” means “second law-giving.” In fact, however, the orations given by Moses reflect not so much a different law as an application of the same law given at Sinai to Israel’s new circumstances. More than a recitation of the statutes given in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, the orations of Moses in Deuteronomy articulate a unique polity under which Israel is to live and by which she is to be distinguished from the rest of the world’s nations. Like other books in the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy is a work that was completed in several stages. Though sources incorporated into the final product are likely much older, the book itself was likely completed at some point between the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 721 B.C.E. and the return of the Exiles from Babylon around 535 B.C.E. Scholars generally agree that parts of Deuteronomy are related to the book discovered in the Temple archives during the reign of King Josiah beginning in 621 B.C.E. See II Kings 22:3-13. The book as a whole, however, appears to have been addressed specifically to the returning Babylonian exiles as they set about reconstituting and rebuilding their communal existence.
Deuteronomy’s literary setting is the conclusion of Moses’ life and ministry. Israel stands poised to cross the Jordan River and enter into Canaan. The years of living as wandering nomads have come to an end. Israel’s settled future as a nation in its own right is about to begin. The critical question is: what sort of nation will Israel be? At the dawn of history, Cain asked God rhetorically, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9. That cold indifference characterized humanity’s efforts to unite the world through empire. All such human endeavors ultimately crumble under the weight of human pride leaving the world divided by language, tribe and nation. Genesis 11:1-9. Israel got a taste of imperial life at the bottom of the societal food chain during her years of slavery in the land of Egypt.
Moses makes clear to Israel that God did not liberate her from Egypt and bring her safely through the wilderness only to create another Egypt, another oppressive empire living off the forced labor of its oppressed subjects. Israel is not to be distinguished by its commercial success or its military might. When the nations of the world look to Israel they are not to be terrified of its power or dazzled by its wealth. Instead, they will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” vs. 6. “For what great nation is there,” asks Moses, “that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us; whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” Vss. 7-8. Israel’s greatness lies in her recognition that the earth is the Lord’s. Her possession of the land is a gift given not in perpetuity, but as a sacred trust to be used for the greater glory of her God. Israel is not to replicate Egypt by enslaving the resident aliens within her borders (or booting them out and building a fence against them for that matter). Instead, she is instructed to “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19. Furthermore, Israel is to be a nation without poverty. Disparity in wealth there may be, but Israel’s statutes and ordinances governing commerce and agriculture ensure that no one must ever go without the necessities of life: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 23:22. Moreover, “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8.
Jesus also made it clear to his disciples that they were to be an alternative community modeling a different way of living together. “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45. The community of disciples is subject to a kingdom without borders. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, straight nor gay, legal nor illegal, criminal nor law abiding citizen. See Galatians 3:28. All of these are called to be one body of which Jesus Christ is the head.
Archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world concerning the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Our psalm focuses instead on traits of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. See Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the Temple have less to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity than they do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. There is much that could be said about the importance of truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But I want to focus on just one characteristic of the righteous worshiper that caught my eye this week.
The one worthy to approach the Lord in worship does not put out his money at interest. Vs. 5. This injunction sounds a little archaic to generations raised in an economy that runs on credit. Unless we are one of the fabled 1%, most of us buy houses, cars and education for our children with money we have not yet earned. If there were no credit, I would not own a home and my children would likely not have had a college education. Hopefully, I would be able to find a rental unit within walking distance of the church. Otherwise, I would have to rely on public transportation or the kindness of my wealthier neighbors. There is no question that credit has allowed me to enjoy a lifestyle to which I could hardly aspire without it.
On the face of it, there is nothing unfair about reasonable interest. If I receive money from the bank that I have not yet earned, it is only fair that the bank be compensated for losing the use of its money for a period of time and for taking the risk that I might not be able to pay it back. But there is more than fairness at stake here. There is something fundamentally troubling about the fact that the middle class lifestyle many of us enjoy; the business opportunities that many entrepreneurs are able to seize; and the chances for making quick and easy fortunes on equities and commodities markets all are based on money which has yet to be made or on the future value of goods or business ventures that is speculative. If everything from my car to Facebook is being paid for with phony money, there is good reason not only for financial concern but for deep moral reflection. There is an element of profound self-deception here that hides the true cost of what we are purchasing and conceals the risks of the transactions we enter into. The projected cost as well as the anticipated profits from fracking for natural gas, exploiting offshore oil and building nuclear energy plants cannot possibly reflect the potential economic, environmental and geopolitical forces that might very well erase all profit and inflict losses now unimaginable. The value of the fruits and vegetables we purchase does not reflect damage inflicted on the soil and ground water by pesticides, agro fertilizers or the destabilizing effect of holding prices down through use of low cost foreign labor both here and abroad. What we should have learned in the 2008 debacle applies not only to mortgages, but to everything we purchase in a credit driven society: an economy that grows by encouraging people to spend money they don’t have to buy things they cannot afford is bound to crash sooner or later.
I am not suggesting a return to barter economy. Nor am I suggesting that you all go out and cut up your credit cards (though in some extreme cases, that is actually good advice). I do believe, though, that in this time and place when everyone is fixated on “the economy,” people of faith need to go beyond the sterile debate over how best to revive it and begin questioning the fundamental assumptions that underlie our economic relationships and whether those assumptions ring true. A righteous economy is one that values all things genuinely and elevates the well-being of creation and human community over profit.
First, a word or two about the Book of James: Though styled as a letter, the book reads more like a string of sermonetts on different topics. There is no lack of debate among scholars as to whether James, the putative author of the letter, was actually the brother of Jesus we meet in Acts addressing the earliest disciples of Jesus, or a disciple of James writing in his name to a second or third generation Christian community, or some other Christian leader named James. Though many of the teachings in the book are close and even identical to sayings of Jesus, Jesus is mentioned only twice.
Scholars have argued for centuries about the theme and structure of the Book of James. Some commentators insist that there is no structure and that the Book is simply an anthology of loosely connected admonitions. Julcher, A., An Introduction to the New Testament, c. 1904 by Putnam, translated by J.P. Ward) pp. 356-358. Most commentators, however, believe that the book is held together by a structure of some sort, though they disagree over whether the structure is thematic, grammatical/syntactical (sections linked by key words or rhetorical refrains) or determined by liturgical usage. For a very thorough discussion of these formal/structural issues, see Johnson, Timothy Luke, The Letter of James, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 37A (c. 1995 by Yale University Press) pp. 11-15. For a brief but thorough review of the Letter of James, its origins and content, I urge you to read the Summary Article written by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek of Luther Seminary at enterthebible.org.
The one theme that strikes me particularly this week begins at verse 19. “Let every man be quick to hear and slow to speak.” This is at variance with the encouragement I have always been given to “speak up.” As a shy introvert, I suppose that encouragement was a salutary influence. Yet as introverted as I might be by nature, I am just as prone as anyone to let anger take the wheel of my heart. Frequently, I take issue with people before trying to understand what the issue is. Often, I am more interested in refuting people I believe to be in error than in listening carefully for whatever truth may lie at the heart of what they are saying. Even when I remain characteristically silent, that does not mean that I am listening with care. Often my silence is spent in crafting my response to an argument I have not thoroughly considered. So shy people, no less than extroverts, must take James’ warning to heart.
I have often been tempted to publicize a special event at our church inviting everyone in the community who has left the church, who is not interested in the church or who is angry at the church to come and tell us why. For our part, we would promise not to argue or even answer their charges. Our role would be simply to listen. The only thing that gives me pause is doubt about my ability to keep my mouth shut. I am sure that I would hear many criticisms of the church that seem unfair, inaccurate or misplaced. I would be tempted to jump to the church’s defense with some well-reasoned response. But that would defeat the whole purpose. The ministry of listening is just that: remaining silent; making space for people to express their hurt without having to fear retaliation; showing hospitality to strangers; and creating an environment in which reconciliation is possible. So what do you think? Are we up for this?
Finally, I am struck by the phrase, “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.” Vs. 20. There is a lot of righteous anger out in the Christian community these days. Websites like those of the Christian Coalition, Women Concerned, Family Research Council are emitting virtual tidal waves of anger against the government, higher education, certain politicians, civic organizations, scientists, gays, lesbians and transgendered folk for reasons they can probably explain better than me. But what interests me and what is not at all evident in their propaganda is what these folks are all for. Even when they mention Jesus (which is rarely), the picture I get is a guy who is against all the things they are against. But what does he stand for besides defunding Planned Parenthood, kicking undocumented people out of the United States, shaming single mothers, driving sexual minorities back into the closet and voting liberals out of congress? The message coming out is entirely negative. This is a religion of unmitigated anger.
I don’t mean to suggest that all of this is emanating solely from the right wing of the right wing. Though I think white so called “evangelicals” have mastered institutionalized anger better than most of us, we of the mainline are not immune from the disease. I note that a good many of my own church’s social statements often spend a tad too much ink on moral outrage against racism, pollution, genocide and whatever else and a bit too little on leading us to vision of the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, the very fact that these are denoted “statements” says volumes. As James points out to us, we must be “doers of the word, not hearers only, deceiving ourselves.” Vs. 22. Speaking out against racism is likely to earn us the deserved label of hypocrite as long as we remain one of the most racially exclusive churches in the United States. Naming the sin does little for a church that does not model righteousness.
Once again, the lectionary people have so thoroughly butchered this text that I hardly know what to do with it. Generally speaking, chapter 7 of Mark begins with a dispute as to what constitutes uncleanness. The disciples’ eating with “hands defiled” sparks an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees. Vss. 1-2. Mark tells us by way of a parenthetical remark that the Pharisees do not eat without washing. Vss. 3-4. Some scholars have argued that this passage is anachronistic pointing out that, in the time of Jesus, the practice of washing utensils could only have pertained to the priests whose sustenance was the meat and fruits of ritual sacrifice. See Numbers 18: 8-13. Though not specifically commanded, the necessity of washing utensils used for the priests’ meals and the requirement of cleansing their hands was readily inferred. The ritual of hand washing for the laity is not documented anywhere in the early First Century. The most ancient Jewish writings indicating that some Jews imposed this requirement date from about 100 C.E. As pointed out by more recent commentators, however, these sources describing practices of the Second Century C.E. do not negate the possibility that the same or similar practices existed in the First Century. Mark’s gospel is competent evidence that the rule concerning washing before meals may have been advocated by some Pharisees during the time of Jesus, even if not universally accepted by all. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Henderson Publishers, Inc.) pp. 174-175; see also Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (2d Add.), Thornapple Commentaries, (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) pp. 338-339; Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) pp. 192-193.
The question of whether this story is an actual remembrance of an encounter between Jesus and some Pharisees early in the First Century or whether it reflects a dispute between the Synagogue and the church at some later time is mildly interesting, but finally misses the point. Whenever it arose, this tradition was of human origin. It should be noted that the practice of washing had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with ritual holiness. To treat something as holy is to recognize it as having been set aside for a sacred purpose. Meals are understood in Jewish tradition as holy in just that sense. They are the medium of covenant renewal and community solidarity. You are defined by what you eat and who eats with you. That should not be at all hard to understand and appreciate for disciples of Jesus whose most significant worship activity is the Eucharist.
Jesus had no objection to ritual per se. Ritual can serve as a helpful reminder that all aspects of life are occasions for glorifying and thanking God. But ritual is distorted and burdensome when it becomes master rather than servant. When sickness or hunger prevent a child of God from enjoying the Sabbath rest God intends for all God’s creatures, it is sinful to prevent healing or preparation of food that would open the door to Sabbath rest for such excluded persons. So also common people, having only limited access to water for drinking and none for the luxury of washing (frequently the case in semi-arid climates), must still eat in order to be whole. A tradition that bars a hungry person from enjoying meal fellowship and God-given nutrition does precisely the opposite of what ritual is supposed to do.
Jesus cites the prophet Isaiah: “Because this people draws near to me with their mouth and honors me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid.” Isaiah 29:13-14. Actually, Jesus quotes only verse 13, but his hearers would have been well aware of what follows. So also would they have been aware of the verses immediately before: “And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed.’ And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot read.’” Isaiah 29:11-12. Their rituals have sealed off the meaning of the scriptures for Jesus’ opponents rendering them unintelligible.
Excluded from the Sunday reading is Jesus’ condemnation of the use of “corban” to deny aging parents the support owed by their children under the Ten Commandments. Mark 7: 9-13. The term, “corban” means simply “dedicated to God” and, as such, holy. Just as holy food must not be handled with unwashed “common” or “unclean” hands, so property declared corban may not be used for the mundane purpose of providing for the needs of an aging parent. While the precise legal consequences and the manner of declaring something corban remain obscure, the point Jesus makes is clear. Here, too, tradition is intended to serve God’s people in honoring the great commandment to love God and love the neighbor as one’s self. When tradition is used to circumvent the requirement of the divine command, it is abused. So, too, a literal application of the law that violates its spirit is just as evil as outright disobedience.
Jesus goes on to discuss what makes a person unclean. Clearly, it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out. This theme will be repeated in the story of the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter Jesus heals in next week’s gospel lesson.