The Rev. Dr. Ross McGowan Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2018
Text: Mark 7:1-23
In the movie Fidler on the Roof, Tevye, a Jewish peasant living in a Russian village, asks: “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!”
He continues: “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything– how to eat, how to sleep, how to work … And because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
For thousands of years, Jews throughout the world have observed religious traditions: the kosher dietary laws; keeping the Sabbath Day holy by attending synagogue services, celebrating the Sabbath evening meal, and by walking everywhere on Saturday rather than driving. These sacred traditions have preserved Jewish identity by reminding them, as Tevye says, of who they are and what God wants them to do. At one point in the song, “Tradition,” Tevye points to a prayer tassel on his shirt, and says: “This prayer tassel reminds us of our devotion to God.” Tradition has helped Jews keep their balance, maintain their identity, and remain devoted to God.
Then why, we may ask, does Jesus come down so hard on the traditions of the Pharisees? In our Gospel reading, we witness a sharp confrontation between Jesus and a delegation of religious leaders who are deeply concerned about observing religious traditions. These leaders point out that Jesus’ disciples have abandoned the tradition of ritual hand-washing before meals. They eat with unwashed hands. The religious delegation asks Jesus to explain this omission.
Before we hear Jesus’ response, let’s try to understand the delegation’s position on ritual hand-washing. Their reasoning goes something like this: We seek to be pure before God. The tradition of ritual handwashing invites God to bless external things like bread and hands, so that we are inwardly pure before God. An analogy from our religious world is the blessing of the bread and wine during Communion. We ask God to bless these outward signs of bread and wine so that we may be cleansed from sin and have a new start.
The Jewish tradition of ritual handwashing arises out of a desire to be clean before God. The psalms teach us to pray: “Create in me clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:11). What does it mean to be clean before God? What kinds of things make us impure? These are questions that all of us ask. We may express this concern differently than the religious delegation in the Gospel, but it comes down to this: How can we come into the presence of Almighty God, given the thoughts that we have had this week, the words that we have spoken, all the things that we have done and left undone?
With this concern in mind, let’s return to the confrontation between Jesus and the delegation. They want to know why Jesus permits his disciples to ignore this tradition of ritual handwashing. It sounds like a reasonable question. But instead of giving them an answer, Jesus goes on the offensive. First he accuses them of being hypocrites. He quotes a passage from the prophet Isaiah:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
they worship me in vain,
teaching as commandments the commandments of men.
Jesus says: “Isaiah was prophesying about you when he said that. You abandon the commandment of God and hold fast to human traditions.” Then, Jesus says that there is a difference between human traditions and the commandments of God. Your traditions, Jesus argues, actually make it harder for people to hear and to obey the word of God. Finally, Jesus turns away from the religious delegation and addresses the crowd: “Listen to me all of you and understand. There is nothing outside of a person which can enter and make the person unclean. Later, with his disciples, he explains: “What you eat bypasses the heart and goes straight to the stomach and is eliminated.” We might call this a “parable of digestion.” Food, in other words, is an external thing that does not touch a person’s heart.
Now at this point, we may well ask: If external things such as food, do not defile us, then what does make us impure? What makes us unclean? What is the source of impurity? And Jesus answers by pointing to the human heart. It is not the things that go into a person from outside that make a person unclean. It’s not external things. Rather, the things that make us unclean come from the inside, from our hearts. To clarify what he means, Jesus then gives a catalogue of the impurities that come from within us:
It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 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. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
This is a hellish picture the human heart. Jesus describes our hearts as a “Pandora’s box or a dark cave, from which hordes of demolike evils” fly out like bats. It is as if “an enemy has taken up residence in us. There is a wild force within us that propels us willy-nilly into behavior that opposes God’s will” (Joel Marcus, Mark 1 – 8).
Once we accept Jesus’ diagnosis of the human heart, we are prepared to hear what he says about tradition. The problem is not tradition per se. Traditions can be life-giving. The problem is that tradition, by itself, does not go deep enough. Traditions can remain on the surface. In fact, our unredeemed hearts have the power “to choke the life out of traditions” (Marcus). Traditions can have the negative effect of creating divisions among people, because of the distinction between those who observe a particular practice and those who do not. For example, I am profoundly grateful to be a part of a church that values Holy Communion. However the danger of valuing this rich tradition is that we may be tempted to look with contempt on churches where the sacraments are not central, to think: What’s the matter with you people? Don’t you recognize the power of the sacraments?
Jesus turns upside down all of our assumptions about what it means to be pure before God. He breaks out of the boundaries imposed by tradition. He offers a new way of freedom. He offers us a new heart. The night before he died, he stooped to wash the disciples’ feet, performing a loving act of service and pointing to his death and to the power of his blood to cleanse us. When Peter pulls back, horrified that the master should wash the feet of the disciple. Jesus say: “Peter, unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” But if I wash you, you are clean, through and through (John 13:8-11).
Jesus’ royal way of freedom breaks into the hearts and lives of his people in surprising ways. Yesterday at the service for John McCain, Senator Joe Lieberman, who is an orthodox Jew, described his friendship with Senator McCain. He emphasized how McCain put up with Lieberman’s religious tradition, like walking on the Sabbath; like taking the Sabbath elevators in Israel, which are programed to stop at every floor. They often visited Jerusalem together, and liked to sit together on their hotel balcony, taking in the sight of that city, which is a symbol for many of the future heavenly city in the Messianic kingdom. For Lieberman and McCain, Jerusalem symbolized the hope that one day, all of God’s children will be united in the city of God. Lieberman ended his eulogy by offering a Jewish Prayer: “May the angels sing you into the presence of the heavenly Jerusalem.”
That Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, and McCain, a Protestant, could walk together is a sign for us and a beacon of hope. Their capacity to accept each other’s religious traditions witnesses to the power of God to overcome divisions and to create in us new hearts.
So, I invite us all to continue our traditions. But may we always do so with respect for those who practice differently. Remember that Jesus Christ has broken down the dividing wall between Gentile and Jew, between liberal and conservative, between Catholic and Protestant, between Episcopalians and members of the Anglican Church of North America. Through his death and resurrection, Christ has broken down the divisions and created one new humanity in Christ.
Most important of all, as we practice our traditions, let us always pray that the living God will create in us clean hearts. May God change our hearts. May he give us loving hearts, forgiving hearts; may he give us the heart of Jesus so that we may love to his will, to the glory of God the Father.