Trinity XVII

Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19.7-14
James 5.13-20
Mark 9.38-50
“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’  But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.  ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.  If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.  ‘For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’”  
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
The appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury is a nervous time for the Church of England, and for the Anglican Communion at large I would imagine too.  The liberals are worried a conservative will be appointed; the conservatives are worried a liberal will be appointed; those in favour of the consecration of women bishops are worried that the new archbishop will oppose women’s ordination and consecration; those opposed to the consecration of women bishops are worried that the new archbishop will support women in the house of bishops.  It is sad to say that we probably think about what we want to avoid in the next ABC more than thinking about what positive features we would like to see: prayerfulness, humility, a promoter of justice, and of course a deep love of Our Lord.  We fixate on what we are against, rather than what we are for.
Christians of different denominations, and Christians of different “flavours” within denominations have not traditionally been very good at getting along with one another.  I remember seeing very sad scenes from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem last year when physical fights broke out between Greek and Armenian Orthodox clerics during their preparations for Christmas.  This is sadly a regular occurrence.  You don’t have to think too far back in history to find Roman Catholic Croats at war with Orthodox Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.  The Thirty Years War between Western European Catholics and Protestants in the 17th Century killed, in percentage terms, almost as many people as either the First or Second World Wars.  The history of Western Europe is stained with the blood of Christians shed at the hands of other Christians.
And you do not have to look as far as the battlefield to find antagonism between different groups of Christians.  Aggressive assertions by certain groups of Christians that they are the only “real” Christians are rife.  The position seems to be that if you don’t subscribe to certain groups’ particular doctrines then you are not one of them, not a real Christian, and you don’t really know God or Jesus.  I find this a cruel and dehumanising attitude to take.  Why Christians cannot see past their differences to the core of others’ beliefs – Jesus Christ – I don’t know.
The disciples in today’s passage from Mark’s gospel seem to have taken a similarly dismissive attitude to someone they didn’t know who was performing miracles in Jesus’s name.  It’s interesting what John says to Jesus.  He DOESN’T say  ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following YOU.’  What he says is ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following US.’  Their rejection of this other follower of Christ is not based on some defect in this person’s relationship with Jesus, it is based on a perceived defect in their relationship with the disciples.  This other healer is not with the disciples, he is not part of them.  Therefore in the eyes of the disciples he (or she) is a rival, a threat.  He is not with them, so he is against them.
No, Jesus says, do not stop him.  This person who is doing deeds of power in Jesus’s name is not someone doing or speaking evil against him.  They should let him alone.  This person is not against Jesus, so he is for him.  This is despite not following the disciples!  Despite not believing the same things as the disciples.  Perhaps despite not believing the same things as Jesus?!  We don’t know.
So why do we insist on applying a stricter standard to others than Jesus does here?  Why do we insist on excluding others who don’t believe exactly what we do, who don’t belong to our little group?
Well, for whatever reasons we do it, we do.  And for us, this week’s Gospel passage contains a warning.  If anyone puts a stumbling-block before any vulnerable person who believes in Christ, the consequences will be so grave that you’ll wish you’d been thrown into the sea with a great millstone around your neck.  A pretty barbaric punishment!  It sounds rather like an ancient version of the gangster punishment of embedding someone’s feet in concrete blocks and throwing them into a river or the sea.
Don’t try to trip up other followers of Christ says Christ himself!  Why question what they’re doing and how they’re doing it if they’re doing it for God, for Christ?  Why put them to the test?  Why try to make them conform to our own way of being a Christian?  Why ask why they’re not following us, if they’re trying to follow Christ?  That is all that matters.
We are all guilty.  Not one of us is innocent of this, whether conservative or liberal, progressive, traditional, evangelical, catholic, orthodox, reformed, whoever…
There may be behaviour we find challenging in other Christians, and there are some things which should be challenged.  But perhaps we can move to a different way of doing that?  A way that doesn’t say “you are against me”.  A way that doesn’t say “you are not a Christian”.  A way that isn’t cruel and doesn’t dehumanise.  But a way that operates by love, instead of just paying lip service to it.  A way that recognises that everyone, even those with whom we don’t agree, is a beloved child of God.  A way that sees our mutual love of Jesus as central, as THE most central thing, rather than putting Jesus second after our own beliefs and preferences.
As the new ABC is being chosen, we can only hope and pray that he shares Jesus’s view that whoever is not against us is for us.  Amen.

Trinity XVI

September 23—Trinity XVI
Jeremiah 11.18-20: A reminder of the lamb being led to the slaughter: justice secured through sacrifice.
Psalm 54: God stands beside us in times of trouble.
James 3.13-4.3 & 7-8a: Blessed are the peace-makers and those who live for others rather than for themselves.
Mark 9.30-37: As Jesus looks towards Calvary, his disciples jostle for status.
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’  But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
Sometimes people just don’t understand what is right in front of them.
In last week’s gospel reading Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was.  Who was this strange figure wandering about the Holy Land with a ragtag band of followers: performing miraculous healings, feeding multitudes, teaching with unexplained authority, standing up to the religious authorities.
Who was he?  A madman, a religious fanatic?  The disciple Peter guessed it right – he was God’s Chosen One (as they said, Messiah) who would come to save and rescue God’s people.  But then he went on to explain that being God’s Chosen One was not what they expected.  He was not who they wanted him to be.  They may have wanted a warrior who would lead a victory, but that was not who God was choosing.  Being God’s Chosen One was about dying in enemy hands.  Dying, not killing.
Jesus’s followers didn’t understand.  So he tells them again.  He tells them what must happen to him.  He must be betrayed and betrayed to his death.  But that death would not be the end – three days later he would be alive again.  Oh, what on earth does that mean?!  People don’t just die and then come back to life again!
You know, I feel for the disciples in this episode.  We all have people we look up to in life, and whose causes we look up to.  People do, for better or worse, like to play follow my leader.  Death is inevitable for all of use, but we don’t expect our leaders, those we look up to, to go on about their own deaths.  And saying they would be alive again after dying?  It’s not surprising Jesus’s disciples could not believe their ears.  They didn’t know who they were dealing with.  They didn’t understand what was right in front of them.
At the end of their journey when they arrive at the house where they were staying Jesus is aware that there’s been some disagreement on the journey.  So, he asks them, what they were arguing with one another about on their journey?  I wasn’t part of it, so let me in on the secret – perhaps you were arguing about how best to serve your God…how best to help the poor…how to serve your Father and Mother?
But they were silent.
Eventually one of the disciples may have come clean and explained red-faced to Jesus what had been going on.  Perhaps Jesus had overheard them on the road, or perhaps he just knew.  They had argued about which of Jesus’s followers was the greatest.  Jesus had just told his disciples for the second time that he must die, and all they could do was to argue about who had the highest reputation.  Perhaps who would succeed Jesus when he had died.  Because nobody comes back after death, right?
Who was the greatest?  The last time Jesus had told his disciples about his death he had said to them “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Let them deny themselves – not in the sense of denying the world and those around you, shutting yourself away in a safe little bubble away from the dirty reality of the world.  Not in that sense.  But in the sense of forgetting about your own interests, thinking about others before yourself, in short not being selfish.
But they didn’t care about that.  They cared about which one of them was greatest of all!  Perhaps they really had learned nothing at all.  They hadn’t really listened to what Jesus had said.  They didn’t understand what was right in front of them.  They didn’t know who they were dealing with.
All they cared about was who the who the greatest was.  How on earth can Jesus get through to them now, when they have shown themselves so capable of ignoring what he has been saying?  He then tells them again “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Deny yourself.  Live without interest for yourself.  Be a servant: obedient, obedient to death, and even death on a cross.
But they’ve not done such a good job with listening to what Jesus has said.  So then he takes a small child and puts him or her amongst his followers.  OK they think, what’s going on now?  Is this child the greatest?  Now they really have no idea what’s going on!  Perhaps the idea is that Jesus sees this child as being as important as his chosen followers.  Children in the 1st century AD were not seen as being of any importance at all, and barely even human beings in their own right separate from their parents.
So now Jesus puts this small, insignificant child amongst his jumped up followers who had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest.  All humans, all significant to Jesus, all significant to God.  Whoever welcomes this insignificant child welcomes Jesus and welcomes God.Jesus, who was welcomed into the world himself as a new-born baby in the stable in Jerusalem.  Who, looking at that tiny baby could have known what significance He held?  Could they see past the child, to Jesus, to God?  Some could, or thought they could.  Would we have known if all we saw was a baby?  Would we have understood even if we had seen Him right in front of us?

Welcome everyone, says Jesus, no matter how insignificant.  It does not matter how great you are, you should be welcomed and treated just the same.  Child, adult, man, woman, straight, gay, black, white, rich, poor, priest, bishop, lord, lady, king or queen – all the same to Jesus and to God.
This is probably a fitting reading to have in the week that the Crown Nominations Committee draws up their short list for the next Archbishop of Canterbury.  Who should be the senior cleric in the church?  Who should be the “greatest”?  Whoever it is must be prepared to be last of all, and servant of all.  They should be in our prayers this week.

Get behind me satan – Trinity XV

[Ed. So this might have been ready for a (late) Evensong, but certainly not Eucharist!]

September 16 – Trinity XV
Isaiah 50.4-9a 
Psalm 116.1-8
James 3.1-12
Mark 8.27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’  And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’  He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’  And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
The Last Temptation of Christ is not a film I have ever seen.  It’s not one I particularly want to see – not for any reason of considering it blasphemous or anything like that, it’s just not on my list to watch!  It’s more famous for the furore it caused than its plot: depictions of Christ having sex were never going to go down well with some people.  But the plot is quite interesting.  The film depicts a very human Christ who struggles with everyday temptations – fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust.
Along with many other departures from the version of Christ’s life depicted in the gospels, the film concludes with Christ on the cross from which he is rescued by a guardian angel.  He marries Mary Magdalen and settles down to a comfortable family life.  After Mary Magdalen’s death He marries Mary and Martha (both?!  Lord, have mercy…).  There is even a bewildering encounter with the Apostle Paul along the way.  Finally on his death bed as an old man, and in the midst of a Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem, Jesus is visited by the twelve.  His last visitor is Judas who reveals that the “guardian angel” who rescued Him was in fact satan .  Jesus ends up begging God to let him fulfil his purpose and to let Him be God’s Son.
At that point, Jesus finds himself back on the cross, crying out “It is accomplished” with His dying breath.  Fade to white.
Had it all been a dream?  It had all been a temptation.
It might sound faintly ridiculous to us – of course Jesus would never have been tempted in this way!  But this passage from Mark’s gospel could well be called “The Last Temptation of Christ”.  Or possibly “The ongoing woes of Peter”!
At the beginning of this passage Jesus takes the time to ask his disciples for the lowdown on what people are saying about him.  He has performed powerful miracles – healing, resuscitations, miraculous feedings, walking on water; he has taught with an arresting authority; he has defied the most powerful religious authorities of his day.  But who does this make Him?  John the baptist…Elijah…another of the prophets?  No, he lets them go on…
Peter chimes in… “You are…the Messiah”.  Got it.  The Messiah, the chosen one of God, the long awaited one, the one the prophets were talking about, the one who would finally redeem Israel, who would finally end the exile.  Physically the Israelites had returned from the exile in Babylon, but they were still under the heel of a foreign oppressor.  The Romans occupied their promised land.  The Herods were puppet Kings at the mercy of the imperial overlords – a far cry from the high days of King David.  The temple, once destroyed, had been rebuilt but the shekinah glory – the sign of the presence of God – had not returned.  The ark of the covenant had been lost.  The temple was empty.  Where was God?  Had he abandoned Israel for good?
The Messiah, the Messiah, finally the Messiah had arrived.  They had got who He was.  Well, almost.
But only now would he tell them who He really was and what he must do.  Only now would they really understand his mission.  When they thought they knew who he was he would take their breath away once again.
Jesus explained that he must suffer and die.  Perhaps he told the twelve about those passages of the Hebrew Scriptures that foretold this; today’s Isaiah passage maybe.  Yes, he was the one they had waited for, the Messiah, the Christ.  But it was that that meant he had to suffer and die.  A different sort of Messiah: a different sort of God.
Peter again.  Peter said “no”.  No, you can’t die.  The Messiah can’t die.  Why had Peter and the other disciples given up everything they had – their jobs, their possessions, their families – to follow someone whose mission was to suffer and die?!  The Messiah was supposed to have been the great saviour who would rescue Israel…but how could that be if he was going to die, to leave them?  The Messiah should be slaughtering Israel’s enemies, not being killed by them!
No gentle word to Peter.  No private put-down to this most outspoken member of the twelve.  No enigmatic silence.  No parable.  No disarming question.  No – public, violent, awful to say and hear.
The cold in the room where they were gathered.  The rising adrenalin in each disciple’s throat “Get…behind…me…satan”.
The last temptation…resisted.  The way ahead now clear – Jerusalem, the mockery, the beating, a cross, cruel nails, the pain, the agony, and only then death.  The Messiah’s way.  God’s way.
To hear a loved one tell you they must die must be an awful thing to hear.  To hear a loved one tell you they must die, and then to hear them tell you that you must suffer the same fate…what do you do with that?  If Jesus had not appalled his disciples already, then surely that must have happened now.  Jesus told them that he would die, and horribly, and that they too must walk the way of the cross, walk Christ’s way.  It is a wonder the disciples did not up sticks and run that very moment.  That was only to come later, only in the very shadow of the cross itself.
But really, haven’t we been running from Jesus’s invitation to walk his way ever since it was made?  Take up thy cross, live to die, die to live, deny yourself.  There have certainly been examples of those in our christian history who have taken this on board.  But now?  In what we call the church?  As a whole, an institution?
One of the greatest sermons ever preached (I think!) is Fred Cradock’s sermon on this passage from Mark.  Look it up on youtube.  In it he poses the question that we all need to face: “Why do we act as if the death of Christ was the saving of the world, but as if the death of the Church was the end of the world?”  In Cradock’s sermon – delivered to a chapel full of ministry students about to be released into the wider world – he warns them of the constant challenges they will face in churches.  Times will always be hard, he says, and you will be told that by cutting back on this church programme here, by reducing your outreach to the poor, vulnerable and needy there, yes the church can go on, it can be maintained, it can survive.  At any cost it can be made to survive!   No, no, no, he says: get behind me satan.  Take up thy cross.  For the sake of the gospel, for Christ’s sake, take up the cross.  It applied to the disciples then; it applies to us now; it applies to the church now.
What would a church look like, what would a world look like where we did just that?  We can only begin to imagine.  It is so far from our comprehension, and yet it is what Jesus – that most unlikely suffering and dying Messiah – seems to be calling us to do here.
I’ll finish with a poem by Charles Sandburg that Craddock shares in his sermon:
Take up your cross and go the thorn way. 
If a sponge of vinegar is passed you on the end of a spear, 
Take that too. 
Souls are woven of endurance – – God knows
Amen

Trinity XIV

September 9 – Trinity XIV
Isaiah 35.4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2.1-17
Mark 7.24-end

Oh dear, this week’s lectionary readings are almost embarrasingly rich in wonderful language.  The Isaiah passage is a wonderful vision of the restoration of God’s creation.  I can just hear Harris’s wondeful musical setting (Strengthen ye the weak hands) as I read it.  Psalm 146 feels like the social gospel in condensed form.  James 2 is renowned for infuriating Martin Luther.  How can you justify a justification by faith alone in view of a Bible passage which says “faith without works is dead” or “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”.  Well, Luther didn’t like that very much!

But oh dear is the fact that I’ve really not given enough time to looking at these passages this week to justify anything that might approach a sermon.  I have a few thoughts on the gospel passage – two very different miracles compared with many more conventional miracles.  The first miracle is interesting for the nationality of the person healed (and that of her daughter).  Does Jesus really dismiss someone from the scope of his healing ministry simply because of where they have been born.  Is “dog” a racial slur akin to “n*gger” as I recently heard suggested from an african american?  Does Jesus really change his mind in this passage?  Can God change?  Does God change?

The second miracle has none of the racial questions of the first.  It is perhaps interesting in that it happens in a very private place.  This is not a healing for everyone to see.  It is also a very physical healing – the healing action of Jesus is accompanied by physical actions: placing fingers in ears, spitting on someone’s tongue (!) or spitting on your finger and touching someone’s tongue (still !).  It reminds me of the sacrament in that an outward physical sign is accompanied by an inner change.

Well, as I said, just thoughts.  No time to even think about working them into something useable as a sermon.  I continually get the feeling that I am too busy for God at the moment.  There’s an expression that is trotted out when people say “I’m too busy to pray” or “I’m too busy to go to church” which goes “You’re too busy NOT to pray/go to church”.  Well, maybe, but I’m not quite sure how much grounding that has in the world that most of the populace inhabits.  Yes, we are all too busy, yes we all work too hard, yes we all worry about money too much.   But we also have to keep up our mortgage and council tax payments, we have to keep putting food on the table amidst rising prices – almost entirely due to shadowy market forces way beyond our control and understanding.  Assertions that we’re too busy not to pray/go to church don’t commute for hours every day to boring jobs with unpleasant bosses and work-weary colleagues.

There’s an expression “the God of the gaps”.  It’s normally employed in discussions involving science and religion.  The God of the gaps is what is required to explain all of those things in nature that are beyond our understanding.  Such a “god” has slowly been whittled away as human science has explained nature.  But in my recent experience there is another “God of the gaps”.  At the moment that “god” for me is the “god” for whom I don’t have enough time, the “god” who doesn’t get as much attention as my job, the “god” who is constantly being pushed into the gaps between the other things in my life.  That “god” doesn’t feel much like the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, the God revealed in Christ.  What is worse is that I don’t seem to be actively doing anything about this…Kyrie eleison

Trinity XIII

Well, after a blog absence of over a year (!) you must be wondering what on earth is going on here.  I’m back again writing?!  Who I am kidding – noone is actually reading but I am actually writing.

One thing I am really feeling in my life at the moment is the need to preach again.  I used to preach quite a bit at our old church, but since leaving there around a year ago I haven’t preached once.  The opportunity has not really arisen at our new church.  Also, being an Anglican church those who preach are essentially all clergy or at least Lay Readers.  (What I need to do to preach in church is another thing, of course…)  We’re also blessed with a lot of clergy in the parish (although no incumbent or priest in charge) and Lay Readers so there are plenty of people to preach.

So, no pulpit…or lectern from which to preach.  However, I can use my blog to collect my thoughts as I would for a sermon, and I hope you’ll indulge me in doing so!  It really is a written reflection, rather than exactly what I might say, but the thoughts are probably the same.  As seems fitting, I thought I would use the weekly lectionary texts as the basis for my thoughts.  Much easier than having to choose a text each week, and much less danger of just choosing favourite passages.

Despite my best intentions, it is now 2330 on Saturday evening, so if I were a jobbing priest or preacher this would really be very last minute for a Sunday morning sermon.  But, it’s been a hectic week.  I also gain a certain degree of perverse pleasure thinking about the number of others also writing their sermons at the last minute on a Sunday evening!  This will really be a collection of random thoughts I’ve had about the passage(s) this week rather than anything rounded at all, so do forgive me in advance.

The texts for Trinity XIII are Deuteronomy 4.1-2 & 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1.17-27; and Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23.  I only really have time to consider the gospel passage, although I think the pairing with the Deuteronomy passage and that particular Psalm is a little ironic.  The prohibition of lending money at interest in Psalm 15 should also be food for thought for, well, just about anybody.  Every had a credit card?  Ever had a mortgage?  Work in the financial industry?  How do you deal with Psalm 15?  Really not enough time!  (Now 2335…and I must hit the sack at midnight).

So, the gospel…
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they 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.” 
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
[…]
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. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’A slightly odd chopping up of Mark 7, but that is what has been put in the lectionary!

What is all this business about excessive hand- and pot-washing all about?  Yet again Jesus and the strict set of the scribes and Pharisees seem to come into conflict with one another, and again over something which seems fairly trivial on the surface.  Yes, washing your hands before eating is the hygienic thing to do, but not worth arguing about surely?!  Well, it goes a little bit deeper than that I think.

Firstly, it’s worth noting that Jesus did not attack the practices of the Pharisees directly.  It only became an issue for him when they (the Pharisees) started questioning the behaviour of Jesus’ disciples.  Through that they were really having a go at Jesus himself.  “If the pupils are doing this or that, it must have come from the instruction or example of the master…”  It is when the Pharisees in effect ask why the disciples are not behaving like good people of God that Jesus’ anger is provoked.  He calls out the Pharisees’ obsession with external cleanliness as a mere human tradition which pays lip service to God but shows how empty their hearts are of true affection for God or his people.

The issue with washing of hands and vessels goes way beyond simply wanting to be clean, and to avoid food poisoning!  Whole swathes of the Old Testament are devoted to discussions of what sort of things make a person unclean, how long it makes them unclean for, and how to ritually wash to make oneself clean again.  Unclean things include pigs, lepers, dead bodies, menstruating women, bodily discharges etc.  The Law in the Torah clearly demarks who is “clean” and who is “unclean” and therefore “untouchable”.  Those outside and those inside the lines of acceptability.  The Pharisees in Jesus’ time would have been washing themselves ritually to decontaminate themselves after having touched the wrong sort of people.

Jesus in this passage, and in his behaviour throughout his ministry recorded in the gospels roundly criticises this.  Think Jesus touching lepers, touching dead bodies or at least being in close proximity to them (Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter), being touched by the woman who had been bleeding for years.  Jesus says that no more should people be made untouchable outcasts.  Yet again the message of Jesus is a radically inclusive one.  You might have read in the Scriptures that to touch a leper makes you unclean, but look this Jesus character is happy to touch a leper and then pronounce that they are healed and their sins forgiven.  Who does he think he is?!  Who is he?!  What gives him the right to do this for God’s sake?!

It sometimes feels that the church hasn’t moved on very far from the attitudes of the Pharisees in this story.  People don’t tend to worry so much about ritual washing and cleanliness, but there are some groups of people that the church is very uncomfortable associating with – drug addicts, alcoholics, the gay community and others deemed to be sexually “other”.  There are those within the church who worry that other’s perceived sin might rub off on them if they get too close.  They need to stay clean.  They cannot be contaminated.

There is another sense in which the church indulges in this sort of Pharasaism.  That is in terms of what beliefs are and aren’t acceptable.  The church is hugely fond of saying to others “Why do you not behave in accordance with our tradition?”  “Why do you not do what it clearly states in the bible?”  Laying aside questions of exactly what IS part of tradition, and exactly what the bible DOES say, this sort of behaviour looks very questionable in view of this passage from Mark.

Any time the church says “Why are you not like us?  Why do you not believe what we do?  You must be like us and do what we do in order to be a Christian, or to be a good Christian” it is falling into an ages old trap.  This is not the time and place to discuss right beliefs or practices (and at 2358 I must go to bed!), but there is something inherently problematic in an attitude which looks at others and asks them to justify themselves.  This applies to all: conservatives, liberals, progressives, evangelicals, progressives, whoever.

It seems far more consistent with the message of Jesus that we should be looking at ourselves and asking difficult questions of ourselves instead.  What do you think?

[And at midnight I’m calling it a day, or night, or whatever, without quite getting round to the next bits of the passage]