By the Rev. Darren Miner
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Yet again the editors of our lectionary have mangled the Gospel reading. This week they delete ten whole verses, and by so doing they substantially change both the context and content of Jesus’ teaching. As an example of how important context is let me tell you about an incident on Facebook that happened only this last week. Someone on Facebook with animus toward Planned Parenthood cherry-picked a partial quotation from Margaret Sanger, one of that organization’s founders. Here is the quote: “We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” It sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? It sounds like she has a terrible secret agenda. Immediately, hundreds and hundreds of well-meaning folks demanded that all memory of Margaret Sanger be deleted from the history books and that Planned Parenthood be defunded. But as I said, context is critical! Margaret Sanger was concerned that conservative Christian ministers, who opposed birth control on principle, would spread a false rumor that her work among African-American women was some kind of plot to exterminate the race. She went on to say that she would have to depend on the more moderate ministers to keep such a slander from spreading. Now, I’m not saying that the lectionary editors have mangled the truth as badly as did the contentious poster on Facebook. But it’s bad enough. I’ll just have to do my best to fill in the gaps. So let’s begin!
Jesus is in Gennesaret on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. A group of Pharisees and religious scholars travel all the way from Jerusalem to check out this man Jesus. And they aren’t entirely pleased. They notice that some of Jesus’ followers don’t follow the religious customs of the Pharasaic sect. Specifically, they failed to wash their hands before eating. The Evangelist Mark goes on to explain to his readers that the Pharisees, and indeed all the Jews, wash their hands before eating in accordance with the Tradition of the Elders. Well, this is an exaggeration. Not all Jews practiced this custom. It was a particular custom of the Pharisees, one religious group among many in first-century Judaism. The Pharisees believed that every Jew, or at least every Jewish man, should live his life as if he were a priest serving in the Temple. Since a priest was required to wash his hands before sacrificing at the altar, Pharisees encouraged Jews to wash their hands before eating at their dining room table. Although such customs are not found in the written Torah, the Pharisees claimed that there was a second, oral Torah. According to the Pharisees, this secret teaching was passed down from Moses to his followers and from them to their followers down through the ages.
Jesus clearly does not believe in a second, oral Torah. And he comes to the defense of his disciples with a quotation from Isaiah about “teaching human precepts as doctrines.” He then goes on to say, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” This accusation doesn’t make sense, at least not yet. Up to this point, Jesus hasn’t given any evidence of the Pharisees’ having abandoned a commandment of God. In point of fact, Jesus does go on to substantiate his claim, but the editors of our lectionary have deleted this bit, making it look like Jesus is guilty of unsubstantiated slander against the Pharisees.
The editors may have deleted Jesus’ testimony against the Pharisees to save space. Or maybe they deleted it because it’s a bit difficult to understand. In any case, it behooves us to fill in the gap, if we would hope to understand Jesus’ line of reasoning. Jesus makes reference to a legal ruling of the Pharisees that he believes violates the commandment of God found in the written Torah so as to preserve a tradition deriving from the so-called oral Torah. Evidently, a man had argued with his elderly parents whom he was supporting. And he vowed that the support that he owed them as their son he thereby offered to God. The Pharisees had ruled that in accordance with their tradition this vow to donate his parents’ support to God superseded the biblical commandment to honor his father and mother. As a result, the parents would be left homeless and destitute. Jesus vehemently disagrees with this ruling and denounces it as a clear violation of the written commandment of God. For Jesus, the traditions of the Pharisees have no binding force. To be fair to rabbinic Judaism, by the year 200 A.D., the Rabbis had come to the same conclusion as Jesus about making vows that violate the written Torah. If such an oath were rashly made, a rabbinic court could, and would, overturn the vow.
Jesus then addresses the crowd who has been listening in on his debate with the Pharisees. He refers back to the original issue of washing hands before eating. And he gives a rather remarkable teaching: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Now, that doesn’t sound all so very strange to most of us. But it would have seemed quite strange to Jesus’ Jewish audience, just as it would seem quite disturbing to many Jews today. In Jesus’ day, virtually all Jews believed that certain foods and certain actions made one temporarily unfit to worship God, for such is the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures. It seems, at first glance, that Jesus is contradicting himself. Previously, he had argued that the written commandments of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as the commandment to honor one’s parents, were in full effect. But here he seems to be saying that the kosher laws no longer apply. And that’s how the Evangelist Mark interprets Jesus’ teaching. But this interpretation is unlikely. If Jesus had revoked the kosher laws during his ministry, surely this would have been mentioned when St. Paul was arguing with the leaders in Jerusalem about whether Gentiles and Jews could eat at the same table. No, I don’t think that Jesus intended to overturn the written Torah. Instead, he is using a standard rhetorical device of the day, a form of hyperbole, the point of which is to say that what comes out of a person is much more important to God than what goes into said person. And by comparison, the kosher laws, though still binding on Jews, are as nothing.
At this point in the story, the editors of the lectionary delete another five verses. In the lectionary reading, it seems like the rest of Jesus’ speech is addressed to the same crowd he had just been speaking to. But not so! Instead, Jesus and his disciples have retreated to a private home, where the disciples then admit to Jesus that they have no idea what he meant by his recent teaching. He gently chides their lack of understanding and proceeds to explain that unclean food passes out of a person in a day or so, causing no permanent defilement, no lasting separation from God. Much more defiling are the evil intentions within one’s heart that result in “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, the evil eye, slander, pride, folly.” “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” They make a person unfit to come before God. They produce a spiritual uncleanness that lasts much longer than a day.
The list of vices that Jesus enumerates, though lengthy, is by no means complete! It fails to mention several sins that St. Paul lists in his letter to the Galatians, including “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, and factions.” And in today’s Epistle, St. James warns us to “bridle our tongues.” So even if you find yourself innocent of murder and adultery, can you honestly say that your heart is completely free from anger or your tongue from gossip? Neither can I!
So what are we supposed to do about the evil intentions in our hearts? In a word, repent. We are expected to respond to God’s Word, confess our sins to almighty God, accept his forgiveness, and seek strength in the sacraments to change our hearts and mend our ways. And because we often fail in the amendment of our lives, we come back to church and repeat the whole process, again and again, as we slowly but surely progress on our lifelong journey into holiness. George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” [emphasis added]. Let me make a minor revision to that quote: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their hearts cannot change anything.”
May God create in us clean hearts and put new and right spirits within us. Amen.
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by Permission.