Tag Archives: Pharisees

Wash your hands or don’t – it doesn’t matter to God

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘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.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

(Read the whole passage here)

This story is not about washing hands. 

After a 5 week detour into the Gospel of John to hear the story of the feeding of the 5000 and then 4 more weeks of conversation about the bread of life, we are rudely dumped back into Mark’s gospel.

John has been giving us gentle rolling theological poetry of Jesus, hoping to unravel and expand our understanding of God. 

Yet, as we are dumped back into Mark this morning, it is kind of like being woken up by a harsh alarm clock in the middle of a great dream. 

Mark is not about expanding and unravelling the story of Jesus. Mark only gives us the minimum of details. He wants us to wonder. If we aren’t wondering what on earth is going on after hearing a passage of Mark’s gospel, we aren’t listening. 

So be forewarned, this story is not about washing hands. 

Today, Jesus and his disciples are just minding their own business while they eat lunch. Some of the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem had come down to see what Jesus is up to, probably hearing of the crowds he had been drawing. 

And when these Pharisees and scribes see that the disciples are eating with unwashed hands, they begin to make a stink about it with Jesus. And Jesus is not impressed.

He berates the accusers of the disciples: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Then Jesus goes on to name an extensive list of sinful behaviours and concludes with this gem: “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” 

We left the philosopher poet of John behind last week, and this week we get Mark’s angry lawyer-like Jesus, who is sticking it to the Pharisees and scribes about what it is the really defiles. 

But lest we forget, this story is not about washing hands. 

The judgemental question or accusation that the Pharisees make about hand washing is what sets Jesus off on his tirade about the things that truly defile human beings. And while his response is to swiftly condemn the things that truly defile, hand washing is only the pretext for the Pharisees, the reason they give for their judgement is not the real reason. 

If they really cared about hand washing, they would have stopped the disciples before they started eating. Or at the very least their question to Jesus would have been, “Why are they eating with dirty hands, that can make them sick?”

Instead, the Pharisees and scribes are asking about something that is not really about hand washing. 

“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”, they ask.

Jesus is upset because first of all the Jews believed that the law had been given to them by God through Moses. The Pharisees are placing their faith in the elders and ancestors. 

But not just that. The Pharisees have a confused understanding of faithfulness. They are trying to be faithful by appearing like they follow the rules, by being faithful to their ancestors and they way they practiced their faith. The Pharisees have intermingled their faithfulness and their understanding of being good, righteous and faithful Jews with being faithful children, with being good, righteous and faithful descendants. 

They live in a world that values staying the same. They learned their way of life from their parents, who learned from their parents, who learned from their parents. And they learned that it is important to refrain from change. The way of life they know is what worked for generations before them, what right do they have to change it? 

And while washing hands among the other rules of ritual cleanliness were first instituted as a way of keeping the people of Israel safe and healthy – the rules were meant to be of service to humans beings – the Pharisees had become servants to the rules. 

Faithfulness was no longer about living in right and healthy relationships which each other, with creation and God. 

Faithfulness, righteousness, knowing that you were in right standing with God was now about keeping the rules, the rules that made your parents, and grandparents and great grand parents righteous too. 

Even while Jesus lectures the Pharisees about what truly defiles them, he is challenging how they understand righteousness, how they understand the way that they are saved, how they understand the ways they are faithful. 

The Pharisees think it is following the rules handed down generation after generation is what makes them faithful, is what makes them worthy of being forgiven and loved by God. 

It goes without saying that this is something that people of faith, that church communities, that we struggle with too. Ask any couple bringing their child for a baptism why they want their baby baptized? Not one will say it is because through Water and the Word we are made children of God receiving God’s tangible sign of forgiveness, life and salvation. No, they will mostly say they are coming because it is what happens in their family, it is just the right thing to do. 

It is very easy for us to lose sight of big picture. We can get stuck in ruts and fear change out of a sense of loyalty to our ancestors, forgetting why they did the things they did in the first place. 

And so when Jesus challenges this idea that following the rules of the ancestors is not what earns us forgiveness, life and salvation – that being good rule followers is not why God loves us, we have to wonder… what does make God love us? 

God’s love for us is not earn or achieved. God gives us love freely.  Washing our hands or having our babies baptized doesn’t earn it. Mowing cemetery lawns or keeping the faith of our ancestors unchanged doesn’t make us righteous. 

In fact God’s love for us has nothing to do with those things. It has to do with who God is and who we are. It has to with God loving us because we belong to God. It is the love of the creator for the created, the love of a parent for a child.  

Jesus’ challenges our understanding of faithfulness so that we don’t have to live out to the faithfulness of our ancestors. We don’t have be good Christians because our grandparents were. We are loved by God first and that is what makes us good. 

Today’s story is not about washing hands. 

Today Jesus is reminding us that it is not what we do or don’t do that earns God’s love. Our faith in the traditions of the ancestors won’t save us, nor make us righteous. 

Only God can do that. 

And clean or unclean, defiled or undefiled, faithful to the ancestors or failing them, God chooses to love us no mater what. 

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That’s not the way we do things around here Jesus

Mark 2:23-3:6
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Read the whole passage)

Today begins the second half of the church year, the first of Ordinary Time or Sundays after Pentecost. For the first half of the church year, we told the stories of Jesus’ life, beginning with Advent and Christ’ birth at Christmas. Than we continued on through Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism to Lent, and the story of Jesus going to the cross on Good Friday. And then there was the resurrection on Easter and Pentecost, the beginning of the Church. Today, we begin a six month period, 26 Sundays, of telling the stories of Jesus’ ministry, teachings and parables. 

This year we will hear mostly from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the oldest and first Gospel to be written. And Mark’s Jesus is perhaps the most interesting. Unlike Matthew where Jesus is like a Jewish religious authority, or Luke where Jesus is a kind healer, or John where Jesus is like a philosopher, Mark’s Jesus is a wild and untamed prophet. A cantankerous mystic who has got a mission follow yet keeps getting sidetracked by people looking for help with their issues.

And today, there is no warm up to the story… Mark throws us straight into the deep end of what Jesus is facing. It is only chapter 2 and the Pharisees are already plotting to destroy Jesus. 

The disciples and Jesus are walking along, and as they walk the disciples are plucking some heads of grain from the nearby wheat fields, presumably to munch on. Yet, this almost mindless act catches the ire of Pharisees. For it is the Sabbath and plucking grain seems a lot like work. And working on the sabbath is against the 3rd commandment – Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. 

And so begins the ongoing conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, who find Jesus’ constant flaunting of the rules to be infuriating. 

So then Jesus enters into the local synagogue where the Pharisees are waiting for him. Waiting for him so that they can catch him breaking the rules, doing something truly offensive and awful… hoping that he might heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. How terrible of Jesus!

And Jesus falls for the trap… or does he, as he scolds the Pharisees for their hardness of heart. 

In case it hasn’t become obvious by now, the issue isn’t what Jesus is doing on the Sabbath. Rather, it is a familiar problem to us. 

It is the problem of “That’s not the way we do things around here.”

The summer following my first year of university, I got a job working as a camp counsellor at one of the Lutheran Bible Camps near to my hometown. Now, if you think churches can get stuck in ruts of holding to traditions and rules above all else, Bible Camps have this problem on steroids. Campers, both young and old, come year after year, generation after generation, and they expect everything to stay exactly the same. That they will sing the same songs, eat the same food, play the same games, paddle the same canoes, sleep in the same cabins, make the same crafts and on and on and on. 

My first summer working at camp, most of the staff was new, including the Camp’s Director. Being new meant we didn’t know the old traditions and rules… and there was no way we could even try to keep them and live up to expectations. So every week, when all the campers had arrived and we gathered together for the first time, the Camp Director would begin by having everyone chant three times, “That’s not the way we used to do it.” 

And then he would say, “we have heard you and we know that things are different this year. And things aren’t going to be like they used to be anymore…  but this is still the camp you know and love, even if how we do camp is a little different.”

Whether we are the Pharisees or people going to bible camp or folks who go to church, it can be easy for us to hold on to the traditions and rules of how we think things should go. And sometimes we can get a bit overzealous, holding onto the traditions no matter the cost. 

But usually the rules and the traditions were created in order to help us. The law of Moses and Israel was created so that God’s people could know God and God’s love and mercy. Bible camp brings far flung people together for a week of intentional Christian community, and the traditions help bind them together. Church helps communities of people like us come together and tell the story of Jesus again and again through lifetimes and generations so that it becomes part our bones, part of our families, part of our history and our future. 

But when the traditions and rules and laws and practices become more important than the purpose they were created for… they begin to do the opposite. They deny access to God’s love and mercy, they create tension and divide communities, they tell different stories of community, stories of judgement and conflict, exclusion and isolation. 

“That’s not the way we do things around here.”

The Pharisees think they are protecting God by making sure the rules are followed at all costs.

But then God comes traipsing into their communities in the person of Jesus… and their reaction is to plot to kill God in order to protect the laws and rules.

And likewise, we are guilty of the same, protecting the rules and traditions even as the spirit comes blowing into our midst showing us new ways of being. 

Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t show up expecting something different from us. Jesus knows that we are fallible human beings, prone to clinging to things that ultimately get in our own way. 

And so Jesus reminds the Pharisees that life comes first. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

Or in other words, what are these laws and rules for in the end. They are to help us know God and God’s love and mercy for us. 

And that is what Jesus has come for. 

To show us God’s love and mercy. 

Mercy that sometimes means the rules have to be broken. 

Love that sometimes means the traditions have to be adapted and changed. 

Because here is the thing.

Sometimes we are the rule and law oriented Pharisees. Sometimes we are the protectors of tradition at Bible camp or church. 

But sometimes we are also hungry disciples. We are also the man with the withered hand. We also people coming to camp or to church in need of God’s love and mercy. People who need a sign of God’s promise of life because we do not see it anywhere else in the world.  

And so Jesus comes. 

Jesus comes into our communities that cling to wrong things and try to protect the rules and laws and traditions that get in our own way. 

And Jesus reaches out to us, reaches out to our hungry souls, to our withered bodies, to our tired spirits. To people tired of keeping the rules and to people tired of being crushed by the rules. 

And Jesus reminds us of why we are here in the first place. 

That God has brought us together and given us the tools to share God’s love and mercy to the world – laws and traditions that help us to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Tools that should remind us that God’s mercy is for everyone, and God’s mercy is especially for us. 

And even when we loose sight that, even when we are busy trying to protect the ways we have always done it, Jesus comes to us again and again. 

Jesus comes to us week after week, right in the very places where we try the hardest to hold onto the rules. 

And Jesus comes to us in the waters of Baptism, in the Word we hear proclaimed and in the meal of mercy we shared. Jesus comes and takes our hands and restoring us to wholeness. Jesus grabs hold of us and welcomes us into God’s mercy and love, into God’s promise of new life.