This morning we come back to the story Mark is telling about Jesus. It seems like strange place to land in the Gospel: right in the middle of a heated argument Jesus is having with religious leaders, the Pharisees and scribes. Questioning adherence to the purity laws, they ask Jesus “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?”
But on the other hand it gives us insights into what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus calls the crowd to attention with a powerful lesson about what corrupts the human heart. The passages launches the part of Mark’s gospel that teaches us about discipleship. You might want to wear a crash helmet … or at least hold on to your hat!
Experts in God’s law, the Pharisees and scribes were high achievers. They knew their story of exodus, of liberation from slavery in Egypt, and they understood that God gave them the law as a gift not to earn their way into God’s favour but to order their lives a God’s faithful people. They believed that strict observance of the law displayed God’s redemptive love. They believed that strict observance of the law gave glory to God.
And so they interpreted the law to apply to all of God’s people and to every aspect of daily life. Washing hands is a good example. Priests serving in the temple were required to wash their hands before entering the holy place or offering a sacrifice and so they instituted traditions for all faithful people to wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred. It was not just a matter of proper hygiene. Their intention was to bring every aspect of daily life under the blessed canopy of God’s presence and love. They intended these traditions, practices to strengthen the faithful, to preserve Jewish faith and way of life, daily living, especially in the face of Roman occupation. They are questioning Jesus’ authority and alarmed at the implications of Jesus and some of his disciples running rough shod over tradition.
So why do they receive such a harsh response from Jesus? The clue is in the verse Jesus quotes from Isaiah. This people honours me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.
Jesus insists that the religious leaders had become so focused on outward signs of faithfulness that they neglected to examine their own hearts. There was disconnect between the faith they claimed and the way they lived day by day. In all their striving to live faithful lives they neglected to fulfill the heart of the law – to love God and their neighbour.
It is from the human heart that evil intentions come, this is what defiles a person and washing hands, cups and pots isn’t the cure. Jesus says.
In fear we put up walls between people, we judge who is in and who is out… the unclean, contaminated, unworthy, people who looked different. Those who called themselves faithful had turned inward, they established boundaries and prohibitions – they built walls out of fear. They forgot the point of living faithful lives: to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself. God’s people had disconnected their religious practices from daily life and no amount of hand washing could fix it.
Notice how Jesus responds. he addresses his critiques and then turns his attention to the crowd. Jesus sees into our heart, he knows what lurks there, he knows our burdens, our regrets and the power of the evil one who works to cast a dark shadow; but he does not turn away. He does not leave us alone; he knows what is in our heart yet loves us still – so much that he will die to confront and defeat the power of sin and death itself.
Jesus warns us to beware of piety and religious practice that separates us from others for it will surely separate us from God.
And so the issue at hand in this little story Mark tells is not that of ritual purity, or even of what traditions Jesus’s disciples ought to follow (or not). The real over-riding issue is about integrity… coherence between what we believe and how we live.
I am glad we are back in Mark’s story of Jesus as we gather this morning to worship the living God, and to be renewed, refreshed and encouraged in our daily life of faith. Jesus shows us what true faithfulness looks like as it is worked out in the world – he will show us what sacrificial redemptive love looks like in public; he will show us what coherence between the inside and outside looks like by daring to touch those considered unclean, by daring to love those who are the social outcasts, by giving his very life for the whole human family- tax collectors and sinners, lepers and demon-possessed, scribes and Pharisees, you and me.
So, when Jesus’ teaching seems to set aside traditional Jewish practices like the purity laws it is not because they are irrelevant but because the deeper truth to which they always pointed has now been revealed in him. In Jesus, the God-given law has been fulfilled. Everything the scriptures were getting at in terms of God’s plan for the world, for wholeness, for people to be holy through and through, for justice and peace, all of it reached its peak in Jesus the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, and so from now on everything is different.
As Mark’s story unfolds over the next several weeks, Jesus will show us what it looks like to follow him. True faithfulness is not about outward appearance or mindless adherence to traditions; it is not about clean hands but a heart cleansed and a life shaped by the self-giving love God made known in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And that’s where the letter of James is a great companion to Mark’s story about following Jesus. We will hear most of this short, pointed letter over the next month and I urge you to read it this week. It’s a gripper!
In it James speaks of the perfect law being that which makes people doers as well as hearers. It drives toward the point that our integrity as people of faith, as disciples of Jesus in today’s world, demands of us a particular kind of life and character, being formed by the power and truth of God’s Word dwelling deeply within us. We are not to be merely hearers of the word who forget, but doers of the word who live in certain ways in the world.
Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls, James writes. But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
Imagine standing in front of a mirror. What do you see? Maybe we see ourselves as thin or a bit overweight, a bit wrinkled or dark circles under our eyes. Or maybe a nicely tailored suit, fresh shirt and a good crease in the pant leg…we check in the mirror and then move right on lest we think too much. But James pulls us back to look again; to pause and consider not just what we see, but who we are. He urges us to connect the two.
Who do you see now? Someone who has been brought to new life through the gospel, through hearing God’s word? Someone who is known and deeply loved by God just as you are? Someone who is looking for a deeper relationship with God in Jesus? Someone with talents that God wants to use?
Holding that mirror, hear an echo from the poetry of the Song of Solomon:
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
Now perhaps we can hold onto the connection between what we believe and how we live…“be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
Friends, Jesus calls us to figure out what it means in practice to live by the perfect law, the law of liberty, the law of loving our neighbours as ourselves, the law in which mercy triumphs over judgment.
We are going to learn more about that in the weeks ahead but for now, for today, let us hear the good news of God’s love in a deeply personal way and as a community of faith, let us welcome it and allow that word of love to dwell deeply within you; let it put down roots in your heart.
Rooted and grounded in God’s love, may you know more and more the deepest joy and blessing of doing God’s word, offering his gifts, bearing his mercy and love in the world, in His name and for his glory.
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open all desires known and from you no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your holy spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify you holy name, through Christ our Lord.