Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (Proper 17B)
Good morning. After our midsummer interlude in Sunday readings from the sixth chapter of St. John we return today to the rich field of the Gospel of Mark, which is the principal focal point of “Year B” in our three year Sunday lectionary.
Back in the spring and early summer we were in earlier chapters of Mark, at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, hearing the first accounts of his teachings, and with stories about dramatic healings of those afflicted with physical and spiritual disease, astonishing miracles, giving rise to all kinds of interest and even fame. He was making an impression. People were paying attention. And we leap into the middle of that here in Mark 7, as we have just heard, as religious leaders all the way from Jerusalem have come out to the countryside to see what this Jesus character is up to. It’s not unusual for these wild characters to pop up from time to time out in the countryside, and when they begin to stir up a fuss it seems important for the theologically trained and institutionally established leaders to come out and see what’s going on and to do what will usually need to be done to quiet the storm and get things back on track.
From one point of view it might be in Jesus’s best interest to make a good impression on these Jerusalem authorities—but that certainly doesn’t seem to be what happens. So much for his career. The Pharisees and Scribes are quick to point out that the followers of Jesus aren’t paying careful attention to the customary practices of Jewish practice and piety. If we translate it into our context, they ask something like, “why don’t your disciples say grace before they start eating dinner?”
Jesus responds not with a defense of his disciples, and not by saying that it’s not an important thing to say grace--but with a sharp rebuke directed right back at the critics. I imagine him pointing his finger and speaking with great energy—shifting the focus of the conversation and boldly challenging them for their hypocrisy: so concerned with the outward appearance of piety and religious purity, yet so strangely quiet when it comes to things much more serious. This must have played well with the locals. I imagine them not just nodding in agreement but cheering and applauding as Jesus takes on these Jerusalem big-wigs. “You are so very careful when it comes to formal ceremonial observance,” he states, wagging that finger and looking them straight in the eye. “ Yet so conveniently, so conveniently, you turn a blind eye to the depths of sin all around you.”
In a similar encounter recorded in Matthew 23 Jesus uses the phrase “whitewashed sepulchers,” and that seems to be the point here as well. A whitewashed sepulcher, and freshly painted mausoleum. All clean and attractive on the outside, but on the inside full of darkness and corruption. A version of what Jesus says in Matthew 7, “why do you focus on the speck in your brother’s eye while ignoring the log in your own?”
It was only a week or two ago that I even heard of this internet social media platform called “Ashley Madison,” but it was no surprise to learn that something like this existed. The world we live in—to say with some sorrow. You’ve heard of this? A place on the internet for those desiring clandestine and secret opportunities for adultery—seeking to explore varieties of these relationships, if that’s what you would call them, while continuing to maintain the appearance of fidelity within their marriages. In any event, these kinds of stories seem to surface every few weeks. Internet hackers, sometimes motivated by a desire for financial gain and sometimes just to show off their technological abilities—and suddenly names and e-mail addresses and Social Security information and credit card numbers and in this case the secret betrayals of the unfaithful heart are out in the open for everybody to see. Governmental leaders, politicians, upstanding citizens, teachers, t.v. stars, clergy. The small and the great. In the millions, as I understand it. And with heartbreaking consequences. Marriages broken, even already a couple of reported suicides. What happens when the door on that “whitewashed sepulcher” swings open, and everybody can see what’s going on inside.
A glimpse of what really defiles. Jesus asks, “why are we majoring in the minors?” Not these superficial matters of piety and ceremony that seem to get the authorities all riled up. Jesus never says that there’s anything wrong with them in themselves. But how easy, how convenient, to keep the focus there and so, perhaps deliberately, to miss the elephants crowding the middle of the room.
“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.” That would be an interesting sermon series, don’t you think? A dozen Sundays—maybe think about it as a way to perk attendance up over a long summer . . . .
A couple of weeks ago on a somewhat different topic I quoted Donald Trump, you may remember, in this interview with CNN that touched for a moment on his religious faith, and that included an odd comment, I thought, especially for even a nominal Presbyterian, that he had never felt any need to pray for forgiveness. And I just pause with that, and to comment that it may be that for all of us we have developed pretty effective strategies of avoidance, when it comes to the process of seeing things as they really are in our own lives and in the wide world around us.
I’ve picked up a few pounds this summer, and as I go through the process of challenging the reality that inevitably follows those wonderful scoops of ice cream, I notice that it takes something of a greater effort to convince myself to stand on the scale in the morning. Part of me would just prefer not to know. And I guess that’s why some folks will watch nothing but Fox News and others will watch nothing but PBS and MSNBC. Life is just so much easier when we don’t need to hear or see things that challenge our pre-existing assumptions. If all my friends agree with me, then it becomes so much easier to tune out anything I may not want to hear. Just to live safe and secure in my comfort zone.
The stunning and painful irony here in Mark 7, that it is the very people whose office and vocation and ministry it is to communicate to the people the truth of God’s intention for humanity who are instead acting to obscure that truth in a fog of details and technicalities. I would guess it would be wise for the church and for the commissioned ministers and teachers and leaders of the church and all of us in every generation to pause over this with care. How sometimes we begin by imagine our job is to be pointing fingers, and then suddenly we discover that what we are first compelled to do is to be taking a hard look in the mirror. Not a pleasant thing. With the potential to be costly, in ways that we hadn’t anticipated. Those Pharisees and Scribes, commissioned with the stewardship of God’s people and God’s Word, choose the easy path rather than the right path, and so all are wandering cluelessly into great peril. And we should not kid ourselves about that. The peril is great, which is why Jesus is pushing-back here. It’s not o.k. just to go along to get along, when the consequences can be catastrophic. Skating on thin ice, but with a smile, since all the warning signs have been removed.
And so in this moment the one who is the perfect minister of God’s Word and intention hacks into the system and brings to the light of day what they had assumed and hoped would remain hidden forever behind a carefully constructed firewall. There’s a wonderful line in John, Chapter 4, at the conclusion of the familiar story of Jesus and his conversation with the Woman at the Well, when she runs back to her village with the amazing and joyful announcement, “come and see someone who told me everything I ever did.” We pause perhaps at this. Does that sound like someone you really want to meet? But she knows of course that in this case for her the answer turned out to be yes. To meet the one who knew me through and through, who lifted every secret sin and crime of my life and my will and my heart into the light of day. But then didn’t reject me, but offered me a new way forward, a gift, a way that would be clean and clear and refreshed in God’s will. A way of forgiveness and renewal and real joy and peace. So that I wouldn’t need to hide anymore, so that I wouldn’t need to continue to be a prisoner of my own sin, a hostage to my lifetime of lies and betrayals. The one who showed me the way of life, not to make me ashamed, but to begin that day a new journey, one that we would walk together.
Which is what the gospel message has for us this morning. Not to play games with us. Not to pull any punches when it comes to the seriousness of our situation. But not either to churn up our fearful defensiveness or to add even more to the burden of our guilt, certainly not to inspire some spirit of judgmentalism in the way we relate to each other--but instead to offer with sincerity in Christ a way of forgiveness and renewal and reformation, and real joy and real peace.