Theme(s): Clean heart versus clean hands / Inward and outward religion / What is true religion? / Avoiding hypocrisy / God's commandments and human traditions
Sentence: Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (James 1:22).
show us our sins as they really are
so that we may truly renounce them
and know the depth and richness of your mercy. Amen.
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15
We return to Mark - the Gospel of Year C - and dig into a challenging chapter because it takes us into crucial debates between the Jesus movement and those Jews who resisted the advance of that movement, while also raising the question, why does Mark give such prominence to these debates when - in all likelihood - he was writing his gospel in Rome and with a Rome-based audience in view?
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Deuteronomy is a 'second giving of the law'. In this version of the divine Law mediated to us by Moses, the purity and perfection of the Law (as given) is emphasised, along with the importance of obedience to the Law. With respect to our gospel reading today we especially notice verse 2: nothing is to be added to or subtracted from the Law.
I was once told, and have never forgotten, in my all boys' school, that Psalm 15 sets out the character and characteristics of the perfect gentleman!
In the context of today's readings, we note that the person who may fellowship with God (1) is the person who is both walking blamelessly, i.e. obeying the Law (2) and living an outwardly blameless life with a heartfelt motivation to do the right thing (2b, 4b, 4c).
Such a person is stable and solid, a pillar in the household of God (5b).
We are moving on from Ephesians to James.
The Epistle of James (the brother of Jesus?) complements the Pauline epistles which emphasise the importance of faith: we should not neglect the importance of good works which express that faith. The general problem over the centuries has been the thought that in the James' epistle the importance of good works is emphasised to the point of apparent neglect of the importance of faith in Christ (see James 2:14-26).
In today's passage - after the introduction in verses 1-16, focusing on testing of faith, wisdom, humility, resisting temptation - the writer continues a vein of exhortation which is coherent with the introduction. Our passage would not be out of place in the wisdom literature of the Bible, in the exhortation passages in the Pauline epistles, and it is reminiscent of Jesus' own teaching (as, indeed, most of the letter is - we could think of this epistle as a reworking of the Sermon on the Mount).
The centrepiece and effective summary of the passage is verse 22:
'But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.'
With an eye on the gospel reading it is not hard to think that James is commenting on aspects of the passage: the true state of the heart comes from both being undeceived as to what is really going on within ourselves (26) and being filled with the word of truth (18, 21, 25).
Typically of James' Epistle, there is a strong emphasis throughout the passage on 'practical religion'. And if for some of us the word 'religion' is something we are not so keen on using to describe 'the Christian faith', then we confront the fact that James' himself uses the word (26-27).
And the note he strikes is sobering and challenging: pure and undefiled religion is practical care ahead of pure practice of worship in the liturgy:
'to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.' (27)
We may need to translate 'orphans and widows' in relation to the world today (migrants and beneficiaries?) but we cannot and must not avoid the challenge to reach out with practical care to those less well off than ourselves. From that perspective, today's passage is an exposition of the commandment,
"Love your neighbours as yourselves."
Note, incidentally, that the emphasis on 'doing' in this passage is not an emphasis on our actions and practical works in order to elicit God's favour towards us. Verses 17 and 18, for instance, speak of God's initiative in giving to us that which makes us generous and that which makes us 'first fruits of his creatures' 'in fulfillment of his own purpose.' Verse 21 speaks of ridding ourselves of 'sordidness' and 'rank growth of wickedness' so that 'the implanted word' (i.e. given by God to us) may be welcomed, the word which 'has power to save your souls'. We do not save ourselves by our good works but our good works tell the world that God has begun and continues a saving work within us.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15
We need to read the first verses carefully to discern what Mark's agenda is here.
Recalling our foray over recent Sundays into John 6, we see there the sequence of Feeding Five Thousand and Walking on Water followed by an extensive discourse about the meaning of bread. Here Mark frames a quite -different direction: Jerusalem-based Pharisees and scribes gather around Jesus and ask him about ritual cleansing (1-5).
But is the passage about (so to speak) a Christian response to Jewish rites of cleansing or something else?
Note in verses 3 and 4 that Mark takes great pains to explain the issue: there are washing rites which obedient Jews should be observing, but the disciples were not observing them (v. 2). But that only raises the question why Mark bothers to tell this particular story many years later.
One possibility is that Mark is indirectly tackling a current issue of different practice between Jewish and Gentile Christians in his local church community (likely Rome, see also Romans 14-15 for another mode of tackling such difference in the Roman church).
Another possibility is that he is simply building up to a particular point in the teaching of Jesus which has universal applicability: the source of evil in respect of people is from within themselves and not from outside of themselves (17-23).
Along the way (and returning to the passage set down for this Sunday), Jesus makes a different point, about the state of the human heart in relation to worship of God (6-8). That point is that it is possible to act outwardly correctly (e.g. washing hands) while inwardly being wayward and far from God. This is a form of acting out one reality while living another, that is, a way of life which draws the charge 'you hypocrites' (6).
In saying this, Jesus reaches back to Isaiah 29:13 (verses 6b-7), to the scriptures of Israel from one of the great prophets. Thus he aligns himself with the great prophetic critique of Israel's mischievous approach to obedience to the Law, one in which the minimum one needs to do is done.
(Your Bible may have a footnote which tells you that it is "Isaiah 29:13 LXX" which is cited, that is the Greek version of the Old Testament. While it is true that that raises questions about the extent to which Mark is interpreting what he has received about what Jesus said, because Jesus almost certainly did not ever refer to the Greek Old Testament in his own speech, it is also true that we do not know exactly which Hebrew version of the Old Testament Jesus used. What we call the Hebrew version of the Old Testament (i.e. Masoretic text) is one version of the Old Testament. There may have been other versions in Jesus' day, reflected in the Greek translation which Mark uses.)
Verse 8 is just a little bit puzzling (especially if we do not go on to read the next verses). On the face of it, there are plenty of regulations in the Mosaic Law about washing rituals which are divine 'commandment' and not human 'tradition'.
But verse 8 is a pivot from the general problem in verses 5-7, whether one pleases God by outward obedience or by inward attitude and desire for fellowship with God, to another problem. That problem is whether the commandments of God in Scripture are being diminished in importance by the development of later custom endorsed by the scribes and Pharisees, i.e. by 'human tradition.' Verses 9-13 then set out an egregious example of such tradition trumping God-given commandment.
If we go back to the starting issue, washing hands or not before a meal (5), verses 14-15 then become the definitive response of Jesus. (This response, we should note, was not one which biologically considered whether or not it was necessary hygiene to wash hands before a meal). In that response Jesus justifies his disciples' ritual slackness. People are not defiled by lack of ritual cleanliness but the state of their hearts. An unwashed hand may place both food and something else alien in the mouth. But this is not defiling. What is defiling is what comes out of the mouth by way of words which give expression to the state of the heart. His disciples might be technically ritually unclean but their hearts were good.
Lessons for ourselves in a different time, place and context are not hard to find.
(1) Do we honour God with our hearts? Or are we going through the outward motions of pleasing God? (6)
(2) Do we by teaching, whether with words or by example, encourage people to follow human custom/entrenched tradition which - on closer examination - is unsupported by the commandment of God? (8)
(3) Have we heard ourselves speak lately? Does our language express a defiled heart? (14-15)
This year, 2021, is the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Washing hands and other methods of keeping clean and preventing others from being infected by ourselves are high on the priorities of governments and of individuals around the world!