On the one hand, I think it can be a little difficult for us in twenty-first century America to imagine and understand the religious scene of the world Jesus and his disciples inhabited. Like our own culture, Jerusalem and the surrounding Jewish territories teemed with different groups and races of people, many of whom were just trying to make a living and survive the policies and programs of whatever political regime was in office. However, at least in the towns where many of the people were Jewish, life was dominated by a long list of ancient codes that revolved around ritual cleanliness. Many of those codes and laws about ritual cleanliness were written in the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and our Old Testament—but many more were piled on top of those and recorded in various other books and scrolls that were pored over and memorized by the Pharisees and scribes.
Recent research has suggested that the ordinary Joe and Josephine, working to make ends meet in the market or in the fields, may not have been quite as keen as we have traditionally believed at actually maintaining ritual cleanliness, but the concern was still out there in society, wherever they went, and the Pharisees liked to remind people of it. The list of what could make one “ritually unclean” was quite extensive. Touching corpses, for example, could do it. So did coming into contact with most kinds of bodily fluids, including blood. Skin diseases, money, livestock…and the list goes on and on.
Mark the gospel-writer tells us about some of those rules and regulations in the reading this morning. True, Americans wash things they buy at the market in order to rinse off pesticide residue, perhaps, but not so some pastor can declare it safe. Ritual cleanliness, you see, wasn’t so much about preventing the spread of infection as it was about delineating who was in the community and who was out. It was about setting down some order amidst a chaotic existence: everything and everyone had its place. Ultimately, however, it was about declaring who was on the side of God’s good life and who was, at least for the time-being, cut off. The Pharisees would, among other things, make a big deal about washing their hands before they ate to underline the fact that they were “in,” and those who didn’t were “out.”
On the other hand, I’m not so sure our own society—religious and secular—is all that different in this regard. We may not use the words “ritually unclean” to describe many people, but we do pretty much treat them that way, often in the church. I suspect many people don’t attend worship in a church on Sunday mornings because they think they might be judged, or because they believe that don’t have the right clothes to wear, or feel their race or sexuality or past indiscretions make them unwelcome. Others may come once or twice to worship but never return, feeling we’re too obsessed with certain aspects of worship that seem pointless, like the correct order for lighting the candles on the altar (p.s.: there isn’t one), or the fact that you’re supposed to enter the sanctuary through the side doors and leave through the middle ones (you’ve all been doing that wrong since I got here three years ago).
Ritual and tradition, just like anything else, can become an idol. What really honks Jesus’ horn in this morning’s story from Mark is that the Pharisees and other religious types choose to follow certain rules and regulations that are not really written in Scripture and then create loopholes around other ones that clearly are. So he calls them hypocrites. Jesus does his part to dismantle the system of ritual cleanliness but he is also trying to point out the inconsistencies in their religiosity. They make a big show of washing their hands—maybe like a surgeon going into the operating room—and criticizing others who don’t follow suit, but then find no problem in circumventing more serious parts of the law that Jesus points out elsewhere.
In ancient Greek, “hypocrite” was another word for an actor, someone who played a part. When Jesus calls the Pharisees and the other rule-followers hypocrites, he is pointing out that they “play the part” of having faith in God by following through with certain showy traditions—but their skirting of other parts of the law reveals that they are only in it for themselves. In doing so, the Pharisees have essentially picked and chosen which rules and laws apply to them and which ones don’t, and their religion has become vanity. Early Church theologian St. Augustine put it this way: “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”
The Pharisees are easy boogeymen in the stories of Jesus. They’re the ones who get it all wrong, the judgmental, legalistic, power-hungry brokers of religion who attempt to keep the good, humble, righteous people down. But really, Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees and the scribes is a criticism of everyone who picks and chooses from God’s Word, who conveniently rejects the parts that make them uncomfortable and keeps the parts that make them feel good. Truth be told, at some point we all end up “playing the part” of someone who has it all right, who’s figured out exactly what God wants, of someone who knows exactly where those boundary lines are and on which side we stand.
Jesus’ relationship with and to God’s law as set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures has always been complicated to understand. We can run the risk of “playing the part” like the Pharisees, of boiling down our faith into rules, regulations and restrictions: Christians don’t do that. Christians don’t associate with them. Christians light the candles on the altar this way, not that way. Christians don’t vote for that political party…and so on. Yet, a relationship can never be reduced to just a set of expectations, of do’s and don’t’s, and a relationship is really what faith in God is about.
Likewise, followers of Christ have also been tempted to boil down faith in the other direction; that is, so that the practice and meaning of faith in God is just about some fuzzy notion of love. If ritual and laws can be so misused, then why not get rid of them altogether? And if Jesus can dismiss laws outright—like when he declares all food clean—then why not just ignore any old law that God issues? It really doesn’t matter what you do as long as love is there, however one wants to define it. While it’s true that Jesus highlights love of God and neighbor as the essence of all of the law and the prophets, he never intends to nullify all regulations and restrictions. Many of those laws help show us the shape love is to take, how our true faith and love is to perform. For example, we honor father and mother. We watch our speech and don’t take advantage of the poor and needy. As James points out in our second reading, true religion keeps our devotion focused on the orphans and widows and others who are unable to care for themselves.
But God’s laws and words do another very important thing, as well. They reveal to us our persistent uncleanliness…and not type that can be washed away at the bathroom sink. Although Jesus pretty much does away with the various rules regarding ritual uncleanliness, he and his Father are still very concerned about inner cleanliness, the things that can really stain. Fornication, theft, murder, deceit, pride…they are the things that plague us all, elements of our putrid self-centeredness that keep us separated from the perfect nature of God.
Two weeks ago Melinda, the girls and I spent a week of vacation with the families of our closest friends and godchildren. We do this every year: we find a place that can fit us all and have a good time relaxing, cooking for each other, and filling each other in on the last year. This was our tenth summer trip, and we spent it in a distant cottage far back in the hills of southwestern Virginia. There were thirteen of us, in all—six adults and seven children, all under the age of 8 (Don’t it just make you want to go with us next year??). A fourteenth guest came along this year for the first time: a nasty stomach virus. And because we were all in such close proximity with each other—sharing those bronze kettles—well, you guessed it: most of us got to share that, too.
Let me tell you: I started washing my hands like a Pharisee, ritually, after I touched anything that might make me unclean. We went through an entire jumbo-sized container of Clorox wipes. I followed our daughters around, cringing every time they came into contact with something that might be infected (“Don’t touch that!”). But despite our efforts, by the time the last night rolled around, about half the group had come down with it.
Caroline, our two-year-old goddaughter started feeling ill right after our last supper together. In fact, she got hit the worst. Unable to keep anything down, she rolled around on the bathroom floor in agony. Caroline’s mother, who had plenty of other things to do for the family—run another batch of clothes through the laundry, pack the luggage for the long drive back to Wisconsin, dry her wet hair—decided the best place for her to be was on that bathroom floor with her. Clean and showered, and in freshly-washed clothes, Carla sat there the whole night right in the mess of it all, cradling her puking daughter who was unhappy, scared, and unsure of what was happening to her. Carla was not going to let the filthiness of her precious little one keep her—or her love—away.
That, my friends, is the good news of the cross. God is not going to let the filthiness and sinfulness of his precious ones keep him away. Rather than keep the distance, rather than devising new rules and regulations that might clear all this messiness up somehow, God decides to come down to the bathroom floor and be in the midst of it, himself. On the cross, God’s holiness encounters—and, in fact, embraces—our dirtiness, so that we may be brought through the long, cold night of loneliness and made clean.
You see, in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God finally accomplishes what the law first set out to do; that is, make us clean and reconcile us to the one holy God. No amount of hand-sanitizing or rule-following or boundary-drawing will do it. God doesn’t choose the parts of us he likes and then reject the rest! He takes us whole, cradles us there at the center of that eternal love, and in the holy waters of baptism, applies this deep cleaning to us all.
May this new relationship be the basis for your faith in a God who loves you. May you learn to honor God with your heart and your lips, and then may you be freed—freed to touch the world with compassion and mercy as doers of a word that heals and saves.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.