Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity Mark 7:1-8;14-15; 21-23 Deuteronomy 4:1-2; 6-9
I think we’ve all experienced telling a joke and the others didn’t get it. Telling a joke successfully relies on there no explanation being necessary. The quicker the other understands it and responds in the intended manner, the better the joke. But that also means that the one telling the joke needs to know a bit about language and culture, background and society. It may seem very easy but it may well be an art! Telling a parable is a bit like that: Jesus, being an insider of Jewish culture and his time, took what the people knew in order to make a point. He knew, for instance, that the Pharisees had a way of getting out of God’s Law while at the same time inventing new interpretations of the law that put heavy burdens on the people’s shoulders. He calls them hypocrites, and rightly so in the particular issue that they have brought before him: that his disciples had not washed their hands in the ceremonial way before eating. On the face of it, we may think that the Pharisees were right in challenging them, as we know that handwashing before eating is a good idea on hygienic principles. But there was something else going on; something that we would miss if we looked at it from our own perspective and not the historical context. Jesus was also an ‘insider’ when it came to the motivations of the Pharisees: he speaks about the heart as their motivator, the seat of emotions and motivations. And that’s where the Pharisees fell short. They didn’t just wash their hands; they made a show of it. They didn’t just make sure that they wouldn’t contaminate themselves or others, they showed off, so that others would know how well they were doing. And, most of all, their washing happened on the outside only; their religious observance didn’t change their hearts. And that’s the problem that Jesus touched upon, because he knew their hearts; he knew their motivations. He knew that they wanted to be celebrated for their observance of the law, not because they wanted to honour God, but to gain honour for themselves. It’s a tricky thing and easy to fall prey to.
And so Jesus’ words about what comes out of one’s stomach and goes into the sewer, as opposed to what comes out of the heart isn’t meant to tickle like some lavatory joke, although the people might remember his words better for it… Rather, it is meant to make a point about the reason we do something and the effect it has, not only on ourselves but on others too. Because people will observe, notice and perhaps be led astray and do likewise, or encouraged to do right. Our motivations matter. Whether a person is clean or unclean in this way matters more than any religious observance.
I understand that studies have revealed an interesting fact: when a society or culture is unsure about the future, and feels under attack in some way, it begins to cling more to the codes and symbols of their identity. It is a way of telling others as much as themselves that they really are who they claim to be. But the Kingdom of God doesn’t keep boundaries like that; rather, it throws open the doors to all who repent and believe. A new people are being called to hear and accept God’s word of forgiveness and life to the full. That doesn’t mean that the old Scriptures about food regulations have become obsolete; rather, it means that the deep truth about people’s hearts to which the regulations were referring, has arrived in Jesus. And that truth is still as relevant today as it was then: that our hearts need to be purified as the seat of our motivations which is what being clean is about. Amen.