A sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 by Nathan Nettleton
The Pharisees get a lot of bad press in the Bible and in Christian preaching. No doubt, given the story we heard a few minutes ago about Jesus accusing them of hypocrisy, there will be lots of sermons preached today bagging the Pharisees again. This is not going to be one of them. In fact, I don’t intend to say much about them at all, but I will say that it is almost certainly the case that one of the reasons Jesus clashed with the Pharisees so often was because they were the group within Judaism with whom he had the most in common. On all the major doctrinal divisions within Judaism in his day, Jesus appears to have been on the same side as the Pharisees. And isn’t it always the case that we argue more with those we almost agree with than with those we have almost nothing in common with?
Part of what is intriguing me about the particular dispute we heard of tonight is that although it is described as being about matters of ritual Jewish law and tradition, the actual specifics are not nearly so foreign to us. In fact, if law and tradition had not been mentioned, you might have easily thought it was just a debate about basic hygiene or perhaps even modern safe food handling regulations. What it says lay behind the dispute was that “the Pharisees do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it”, and that they also have some other practices about washing the utensils for eating and cooking. Now, who here thinks that there is something morally wrong with washing your hands before you eat, washing food that has been handled by various people in the market before you eat it, or washing your plates and saucepans? I suspect we might get quite a few if I asked you to put your hands up if you think there is something wrong with not washing your hands, your food and your cookware. Am I right? So we are not exactly the polar opposite of the Pharisees on this matter. And of course, we don’t usually think of these things as moral issues. They are just basic hygiene and good sense. But let me push the idea a bit.
While most of the time we don’t think of these things as moral — just as good hygiene, good sense, and consideration for others — there is something that can very easily tip us towards thinking of them as moral issues. And that is when someone else begins flouting them. That is of course exactly what happens in the gospel story we heard. I suspect that the first reaction of the Pharisees when they saw these people eating without washing their hands was not moral outrage, but simply disgust. Their stomachs turned and they went “Oh yuk!” And only then did they begin appealing to the laws and traditions and start thinking that this not only disgusted them, but it must be disgusting to God too. For many of you, if you walk out of the toilets behind someone who you noticed didn’t wash their hands, and they walk straight out and stick a hand into a bowl on the supper table and grab a big handful of popcorn, you’ll probably go pale and avoid the popcorn for the rest of the night. You might even take the rest of the bowl and throw it in the bin so that no one else eats it either. And you will probably also begin to think of that person as a bit disgusting and inconsiderate and before long it begins to seem like a moral issue and you’re judging them accordingly. And I don’t think you’d be entirely wrong. But often it is a bit more shades-of-grey than that.
When I was driving through Guatemala a few years ago, I saw some of the worst driving I had ever seen in my life. People had warned me about the crazy driving in Mexico, but Guatemala was a lot worse. Mexico seemed chaotic and a bit anarchic, but I’m okay with that. Guatemala just seemed homicidal. And I very quickly found myself making value judgements about Guatemalans, or at least Guatemalan drivers. They were crazy, they were inconsiderate, they had little or no respect for human life or safety. And very quickly I found myself making harsh moral judgements about people who were just doing what was absolutely normal in their culture. I still think it is fair to ask some questions about the driving culture there, but I suspect that Jesus would have responded to my judgementalism about the individual drivers with very similar challenges to those he put to the Pharisees over the hand washing incident.
Now the driving incidents offended my perceptions of safety and consideration for others, but sometimes we are offended in other ways. Sometimes something just seems disgusting. Most people in our society find the thought of eating dog or cat meat disgusting, but in some other parts of the world, it is quite normal. Does the fact that I find it disgusting mean that other people are breaking some kind of moral laws that is written by God into the fabric of the universe? It might feel that way to me if I tried to do it, but no, it doesn’t.
But this is an important issue, because gut-level reactions of disgust or revulsion often cloud our judgement of the moral rights and wrongs of other people’s actions. You don’t have to listen for very long to arguments in the churches about the rights or wrongs of homosexuality before you will hear it. A picture forms in people’s minds of what it is we are talking about, and they just go “yuk” and it is very difficult for them to think openly beyond that. And I understand that. I realised the other day that it is now over seventeen years since I first started advocating for the acceptance of homosexual people in the churches, but I still have a bit of that yuk reaction. I find the thought of having sex with a man so unattractive that I can barely imagine why a straight woman would ever want to do it, let alone why any man might. To me, being attracted to women seems entirely normal. But what seems and feels normal and what seems and feels revolting is a very very unreliable basis on which to start forming moral judgments. As the eating dog example shows, our perceptions of normal and disgusting are socially formed. We are not born with them written into our souls and consciences by God.
So where am I going with all this. Let me draw three conclusions. Firstly, the primary thrust of the gospel is about reconciliation. People who were previously divided are being reconciled to God and to one another in Christ. And whenever we are divided, we tend to believe that we a divided for good reasons. Those people are different from us and they do things that are simply wrong — at least stupid and unsafe if not outright disgusting and malicious — and we are right to keep our distance from them. God would not want us to risk being corrupted by being too close to such people. Well, actually the gospel made known in Jesus Christ says that God would like you to take the risk of getting close to those people because, even if all your qualms about them are right, God believes that truth and righteousness are actually more contagious than their opposites. Jesus was quite comfortable in the company of the sick and the sinner because his healing love and mercy are much more virulent. But as often as not, when we follow Christ into friendship with “those” people, we will discover that many of their practices that worried us were not wrong or sinful at all, just different. And when we allow them to share their distinctives with us and we unashamedly share ours with them, both of us will be enriched and the gospel of reconciliation will be advanced.
The second implication I want to draw from all this is for how we go about reading the Bible. You see, another way in which the Pharisees were just like most of us is that they had no trouble finding bible verses to support their own practices and prejudices and bible verses to condemn the practices of others. Anything you read can tell you whatever you want to hear if that is what you are reading it for. If you try to treat the Bible as a constitution or a book of rules, then you will find plenty of rules in it that confirm what you have always been brought up to believe, like the importance of washing your hands before meals, and you’ll probably succeed in being oblivious to the ones that say inconvenient things like don’t eat prawns and wear funny haircuts with long dangly bits in front of your ears. But the Bible is not meant to be a rule book, and that is not the way Jesus used it. Rather it is something of a library that records a long searching conversation about God; who God is and what God is on about in the world. And the most important things that it has to say are not found by finding a verse here or there that confirms or criticises something. They are found in the overall trajectory of the story which finds its climax in the radically inclusive, reconciling love and mercy of Jesus the Christ. And that story constantly challenges us to stretch our comfort zones and be reconciled to more and more people who we were divided from by differences of belief or practice or lifestyle, even if we had thought they were moral absolutes.
And so my third and final conclusion is that the way Jesus calls us to read and understand the bits of the Bible that are expressed as laws, is to read them in light of that overall trajectory, as the specific applications for some time and place of the endeavour to faithfully live out the life that God is calling us to. They are means to an end, not ends in themselves. And when Jesus was asked on another occasion what was the end, what was the greatest commandment, he had no trouble answering. There are two of paramount importance he said: love God and love your neighbour. Everything else, all the law and the prophets hang on these two. Or in other words, everything else in the law and the prophets is just attempted commentary and application of these two. As the Apostle Paul put it, practice love to the full, and the law will take care of itself. And when Jesus was asked for a definition of the neighbour whom we are to love, he spoke of those perceived as enemies, and those who we were most separated from by differences of culture and beliefs and practices.
We and the Pharisees actually have rather a lot in common and, thanks be to God, one of the things we have in common is that we are both invited to the Table of Grace where, despite our differences and our previous suspicions of one another’s unrighteousness and unworthiness, we are both reconciled to God in the scandalous mercy and fierce and tender love made known to us in Jesus Christ.