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]

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