September 2, 2018
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The theme that tied all of last week’s readings together was maintaining faithfulness even in the midst of the various struggles and temptations we face. Today’s readings show us a little more about what that faithfulness looks like. In Deuteronomy, we see that this is laid out in God’s law, which is wise, just and righteous. James elaborates on that, laying out exactly the sorts of acts of faith one would expect to see from a follower of Christ. And in Mark, Jesus totally upsets the apple cart of what faithfulness looks like as he faces up against the scribes and Pharisees.
Mark is what I’d like to talk a bit more about during this time. Because we’ve just come off a month and a half in the Gospel of John, and these two Gospels could scarcely be more different. In John, Jesus is prone to these long, beautiful discourses, where he makes no secret of the fact that he and God the Father are one. Mark’s presentation of Jesus is down-and-dirty, abrupt, almost rushed, like he can’t get this story out fast enough, and throughout the Gospel Jesus tries to keep his true identity a big secret, to be revealed later.
But here is one thing that the two Gospel accounts share: in both of them, and really in all four Gospels, Jesus is offensive. Last week in John, some people turned away because they are so offended by Jesus’ teaching. Today, in Mark, Jesus seems to be undermining the very laws that the Pharisees and scribes work so hard to teach and uphold! No one wants to be told, “You’re doing this wrong, and so did your elders,” and yet that’s exactly what Jesus does. Yet the way that Jesus offers, as always, is one that sheds our human propensities, and leads us into a way of life. Let’s see what we can learn.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This week, in a conversation with someone I hardly know, I let something slip…. I said, “dude.” Yes, I admit it, I spend a little time in my native Northern California, and it is easy enough to slip right back into the vernacular of my hometown. I’ve mostly given up calling things “rad,” but every now and again, “dude” slips back in there. But here’s my real confession: I liked it. I like when I slip back into my NorCal drawl, because it reminds me of who I am. I always come back from California more resolute in my efforts to live a greener lifestyle, I come back with a higher standard for great wine, I’m more interested in going out for a hike, and yes, I am more likely to call people I just met, “dude.” This is who I am, people. Take it or leave it!
The reason I don’t mind slipping back into these things is that, silly as they may seem, these sorts of things are identity markers, things that let people know, “I belong to this group.” We all have them. People from Rochester say “EL-ementary” instead of “ele-MEN-tary,” like the rest of the English-speaking world. We take pride in our winter hardiness, we have a strange yet insistent love for a concoction called a Garbage Plate, and we will never, ever give up on the Buffalo Bills.
Identity markers are an important part of any people or culture, because they not only make you feel like you belong to that group, but they also let everyone else know who you are and to whom you belong. For the Israelites, their most important identity marker was… what, according to our reading from Deuteronomy? God’s law! This, God told them, was what would set them apart from the other nations, what would make everyone look at Israel and say, “This is a wise and discerning nation!” It would provide far more than, say, an affinity for the Buffalo Bills – this law would guide them, show them how God wanted them to live, and bring them into closer relationship with God. This law would be what was a constant for them through years in the wilderness, through centuries of bad kings, and enemy attacks, and exile and diaspora, and rebuilding and Roman occupation and oppression. This law was the very lifeblood of the Jewish people.
That’s why the Pharisees took it so seriously. You know, Pharisees often get a pretty bad wrap, and maybe it is well-deserved, but really, they and many others saw them as the good guys. They were trying to help the Jewish people live holy lives, by keeping God’s law, so that their identity would not be quashed by the oppressive Roman government. This law was their identity, and it must not be compromised. And the Pharisees would make sure of that!
No wonder they felt so threatened by Jesus. Here comes this rabbi, with his twelve… dudes… and they are not keeping the law to which the Pharisees have dedicated their lives to upholding. This dispute about hand-washing isn’t just about hygiene. For the Pharisees, this is a threat to their identity, to their very existence. “Why are you doing that??” they ask, incredulously and with a tone of fear in their voices. “Why are you not taking seriously the law of God that is our life and our essence? Here we are, living as a religious minority under Roman occupation – now more than ever we need to remember who we are, and resist this foreign power! Why are you not living according to the tradition of our elders?” And the subtext: “Who are you, who are we, if not people of God’s law? How can you so easily dismiss that?”
I just want to stop and dwell here for a moment, and feel the Pharisees’ anxiety, because the anxiety they are feeling is not unfamiliar to us. We today know a bit about what it is like to feel our values and so also our identity are being threatened. In a country more divided than ever in my lifetime, at least, I think we are sometimes hyper-aware of who is with us, who is one of us, and who is not. And it is so easy to jump to judging one another, because isn’t the other side (whoever is the other side for you), isn’t it just so short-sighted, and uncaring, and easily duped, and ill-informed? I’m amazed how often I am called these things by someone about whom I was thinking the same thing! It is so easy to fall into that trap of self-righteousness, isn’t it? That same trap the Pharisees so often fall into. And like the Pharisees, all of us have some good in mind. We all think we believe and are doing and fighting for what is best for our people, for those who share our identity. We are all trying to uphold what are our most valued American or Christian ideals, which we feel are being threatened by… you fill in the blank. In that sense, we are all on the same side. We all want to maintain our cherished identity. Just like the Pharisees did.
In both cases, the Pharisees’ and ours, the response to that fear and anxiety, that feeling of something important to us being threatened, comes out as judgment and self-righteousness. And so, we quickly jump to drawing lines in the sand and saying, “You are in, you are one of us, and you are not. You are other. You need either to become like us, or stay away. You must not tarnish our identity.”
Someone once said, if you start drawing lines in the sand between you and others, you can be pretty sure Jesus is on the other side of the line. And for all the Pharisees’ efforts to maintain their identity and live the holy lives they believe God commands, drawing lines in the sand, I think, is exactly what they are allowing their alleged piety to do. The “fence” they so carefully “built around God’s law” is not serving to keep them or the law safe, but rather, to keep others away from God’s grace and mercy. Because that, in the end, is the purpose of God’s law: to guide people toward living lives reflective of God’s love, grace, justice, and mercy. If the law leads to exclusion, rather than love and mercy, then it is not God’s law.
And that is what Jesus comes to say, what he frequently says to the Pharisees in various ways. Basically, he says, “You’ve missed the point of God’s law. The point is to love and care for one another, to devote yourself to God and God’s mission. You think you are honoring God by this, but it is all a farce. Keeping the law just for the sake of keeping the law only serves to keep people out. Instead of being so concerned about who is washing their hands and how, take a look at your own heart, and see if you are driven by legalism, or by love of God and neighbor. If you aren’t driven by love, then you’re missing the point. And if you’re engaging in all manner of sin, even as you preach upholding the law, then I’ll tell you what, your heart and your motives need some work.”
You see in this way, Jesus isn’t dismissing the law, and he is certainly not advocating giving up that essential identity marker of God’s faithful people. God’s law is a very good thing, that does show us how to live holy lives, how to love God and neighbor – all neighbors, not just the ones who also follow God’s law. God’s law shows us how that love should look.
But we also know this: that as important as the law is, as something that shows us what a godly life looks like, it is no longer the key identity marker for Christians. What matters more than our efforts to follow the law, more than our opinions on the hottest political or social issues of our day, more than how you look or what you do for a living or how you sinned this week… what matters more than all of that is this essential identity: that you are a beloved child of God. That you were sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. That you are, every day, forgiven for the myriad ways you have already fallen short of fulfilling God’s law, and the numerous ways you will still yet do so. Yes, despite all that, God forgives you, and God still loves you. That, my friends, is your identity.
I’m still gonna say “dude” now and then, and you might even still hear a “rad” slip out. I will never stop preaching the gospel of bringing your own bags to the grocery store, refusing plastic straws, and cutting as many dangerous chemicals from our lives as we can. I will love the San Francisco Giants and the 49ers until the day I die. And, though I will never learn to love a Garbage Plate, I can now shovel snow with the best of them. But the identity marker that matters way more than all of that, is this cross on my forehead, the one my grandfather put there at the baptismal font, 35 years ago. Because I am a beloved child of God. And so are you. And that’s what matters the most.
Let us pray… Loving God, you have given us your law to show us a holy way to live. Thank you for loving us, so that we might strive to live according to yoru law, not in order to make you love us, but because you already do. Help us erase lines in the sand, and guide us into a way of love, grace, mercy and justice for all your children. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 “Build a fence around the law” is a famous rabbinical maxim, and refers to the oral laws and rabbinical practices passed down to keep God’s law entirely safe from being broken. https://www.bible-history.com/Scribes/THE_SCRIBESA_Fence_Around_the_Law.htm