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

August 25, 2009

I am pleased to be returning to the Gospel lesson.  The sojourn in Samuel and Kings was a helpful change of pace, but I felt that my sermons started to drag as we got deeper into the summer.  I am turning to Mark 7 this week, and already feel revitalized.  This week’s Lectionary text focuses on a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees, but M. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock suggest that Mark was actually addressing a disagreement within the early Church (The People’s New Testament Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], 136.).

7:1-4 The obvious lead in for preachers is the variety of traditions and customs of local churches.  We often assume that our way of doing things—communion on the first Sunday of the month, baptism by immersion, singing “Silent Night” by candlelight on Christmas Eve—is the only way, accepted by Christians the world over.  Then there are more quirky customs, known only to a single community, the rationale for which has been long lost, that must be kept as inviolate as the commands of Jesus himself.  I served one church in which a terrible fight broke out over the donation of a beautiful grand piano.  Some members were angry that two pews would be removed to accommodate the gift.  Those pews, although not much used during worship, had been donated when the sanctuary was built.  The argument went that the family members (if any actually remained) of those who donated them would be heartbroken and angry.  After months, someone finally decided to do a little research.  They discovered that the pews had actually been given by a mortuary and a hardware store.  The issue was resolved, but the fallout from that fight was felt for years after, and all over the idea that two unused pews were sacred.

Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine reminds us that verses like number three, “for the Pharisees and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,” are dangerous statements.  There is no practice of faith or belief that can be ascribed to all the Jews any more than any other single statement can be said to apply to all the Christians, all the Republicans, all the Sierra Club members or any other group.  (There is no single reference for this statement.  For a more thorough and intelligent discussion, see her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus [New York: HarperOne, 2006]). suggests that because verses 1-7 are so thoroughly anti-Jewish, the proper reading for a church setting should begin at verse 14.  I have a different take on the issue.  There are still so many liberal and mainline Christians that speak in such broadly stereotypical ways about Judaism (not unlike the New Testament itself), that these verses provide an opportunity for education.  For most church members and pastors, our primary understanding of First Century Judaism comes from writers who were often in conflict with it.  If I want a complete picture of the New York Yankees, I will not only ask fans of the Boston Red Sox.  I will include verses 1-7 and will try to explain Mark’s rhetoric and show that Judaism is as diverse as any other faith.  I will probably point to the great diversity within our own congregation as an example of how dangerous is that word “all.”

7:6-7 Again, I think it is extremely important to remind ourselves that we are as guilty of these words of Isaiah as anyone else.  We live our lives in tension between the motives of self-love and love of God.  It isn’t any use beating ourselves up over it.  That’s just the way we are built.  These verses do drive us deeper into the text, and toward what I believe will be my primary image—the heart.

7:21-23 I think it strange that we human beings are so afraid of what others might do to us even though the number one enemy is usually the self.  There is great wisdom (if I may say so myself) in what I tell my children all too often: “Don’t worry about what your brother or sister is doing.  Worry about your own behavior.”  Of course, as we read down the list of terrible things that can be found in our own hearts, we do not want to get the idea that all is lost.  It is, after all, the “good news” according to Mark.  The sermon must point to that good news.

Finding that good news will be a challenge for the preacher this week.  The text provides a pessimistic view of human nature and offers no hope of overcoming that nature.  I see two possibilities so far.  Verse 19 suggests Jesus has declared all foods clean.  Perhaps too much of our focus is on what is unclean and not allowed.  Does God call us to enjoy lives that focus on the good, the holy and the loving?  Philippians 8:4 reminds us, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

The other possibility comes from Lamar Williamson’s observation that tradition isn’t always bad just as innovation isn’t always good.  He suggests that it is more important to focus on what is vital (Interpretation: Mark [Louisville: John Knox, 1983], 136.).  That is a helpful concept for our lives individually and for our life together as a community of faith.  What might happen if we asked ourselves at the beginning of every committee meeting, “What is really vital here today?”  What are our core beliefs and values?  Too much of our energy is spent on nonessentials, and not enough on loving God and neighbor.  The good news is that God gives us a vital, life-giving faith that can be the center of our attention.

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