by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, September 2, 2012:
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle? (Ps. 15:1)
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In this week's Gospel, we find Jesus in trouble with the Pharisees for having followers who didn't follow the purity codes. Those of us not familiar with purity codes, but all too familiar with the viciousness of modern microbes, might read the passage from Mark and say, "Yick. They didn't wash their hands. The Pharisees are right to be appalled."
Go back, way back, into the Old Testament and read Leviticus with its rigid commands about the actions of believers, right down to the way they would store and cook food. Now imagine these restrictions taken to an even greater extreme, and you've got the purity codes of Jesus' day. It's amazing that anyone could follow them. And it's important to remember that although we think of Pharisees as hypocrites largely because of their interactions with Jesus, this could not be further from the truth. They were very sincere and committed to what they believed, far more committed than most of their contemporaries.
And it's vitally important to remember that their motivations for keeping strict standards were very good. In The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian D. McLaren notes that the Pharisees hoped that their own purity would prompt God to send the Messiah to liberate them, specifically to liberate them from Roman oppression. Therefore it's understandable that they would try to recruit others to this cause, and that they would grow frustrated with people who couldn't meet their own requirements--the actions of those people polluted the whole population, thus resulting in more alienation from God.
Before we get too snooty about those Pharisees, before we feel too superior to them, it's important to look at our own time. The Episcopal/Anglican church is very close to schism over the issue of homosexuality, and many people wonder if the Lutherans aren’t very far behind. Many of our most divisive fights within the Christian faith grow out of disagreements about behavior, not about belief. And even if you manage to avoid the larger fights about homosexuality, abortion and the like, you're likely to become engaged in fights about the right kind of music to use in a service, the proper amount of times to offer Communion, whether or not to collect donations at the covered dish potluck dinner. Anyone who has done any kind of church work probably recognizes the Pharisees in Mark's Gospel. Again, I stress it is important to recognize our own inner Pharisee. No one is blameless here.
Jesus is never shy about calling people on their wrong-hearted behavior. He quotes Isaiah, "'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.' You leave the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of men" (Mark 7: 6-8). Again, we might think about how we give God lip service--but would a person who didn't know us at all be able to identify us as a Christian? We might say the right things, attest to the proper creeds, attend church on Sunday, feel quite self-righteous about how we are better than the rest of the scummy population--but someone observing our actions, would they know we follow Christ?
Jesus boils down all the teachings of the Torah into two commandments: love God and love your neighbor. How well are we following those commandments?
Jesus came to show us a new way--and he gave us powerful examples of how to live. In this Gospel, we see him practicing his essential table ministry, breaking bread with the outcast and unclean. In our current age, we tend to underestimate the power of these actions. But the larger institutions understood--and eventually, Jesus will be crucified, in part because of his threat to the dominant power systems. This behavior, this community building, is still a threat to the dominant culture--one reason we're all so stressed is that we seldom slow down enough to eat. One reason that we have trouble holding our families together is that we don't eat together.
Imagine how our culture would change if we insisted on taking an hour for each meal break. What would happen if we talked to each other during those hours? How would our world change if we invited others to share our food?
Jesus understood how arguments over right and righteous behavior can tear a community to shreds. Jesus also showed us how to knit our communities together. We should follow his behavior and argue about behavior less, eat together in fellowship more often.