Homily for Proper 22, Year B, 2009
Sunday, August 30th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark: 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
“For it is from within…”
A dispute with the Pharisees, sandwiched between miraculous deeds of power and healing – just what was St. Mark up to, when he chose to include this rather obscure episode in the life of Jesus? Our understanding of this passage is perhaps further impeded by the fragmentary nature of the text as it appears in our lectionary. Once again, in an attempt to provide some focus and clarity, and omit passages that may direct us away from the core message of this text, the framers of the lectionary have omitted several passages. In one way, we may wish to thank them for it for we are spared an excursus on how certain Pharisees dodged the fifth commandment (“honour thy father and mother”) and their filial responsibilities by making offerings to God rather than supporting aged parents. We are also spared Jesus’ explanation of today’s parable by way of analogy to a description of how the human digestive tract works. These excised passages fall within the larger episode, which I will now review, of Jesus encountering a group of Pharisees who accuse his disciples of not following pharisaic oral law. Apparently Jesus’ disciples abrogated purity traditions by failing to wash their hands before meal. Jesus responds by leveling the charge of hypocrisy at the Pharisees. This is where he points out they seem to have forgotten the fifth commandment. Next, he seeks to overturn the meaning of the purity laws by explaining that it is not what goes into a person that defiles them but what comes out of a person. He then takes aside the disciples, that ever-so-dunce group, and explains to them just what he means by this, illustrating his parable by means of the digestive tract analogy. The moral lesson is then expounded: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
While I am sure that there are things that might yet be added to this list, and it seems quite thorough, there may be many little, lesser sins that are neglected. Realizing that we have not committed some of the greater sins, like murder or theft, does not get us off the hook. One would do well to remember that this list seems to be representative rather than exclusive, and that that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. Thus, the point of Jesus’ parable is clear and should be simple, should it not? Just don’t do bad things and all will be well.
I suppose it should be that simple, and yet I wonder why it is we continue to get it wrong? I had moments in the last week, when despite my best efforts and striving, I could just not love my neighbour, much less my enemy. I am certain I am not alone in such realizations. I cannot tell you how many people I have had come to me that have been hurt by family or friends and have said, “Father, I know I am supposed to forgive, that is what is commanded of me as a Christian, but I just can’t do it.”
And therein rests our dilemma as Christian people, and the dilemma that is at the heart of this confrontation with the Pharisees. In this conflict over purity regulations that seem obscure to us today but essentially a conflict over how people of faith are to behave, is unearthed a conflict between the desire to do the right thing and the practical problem of how to live out of this desire.
If we were to rely only on the gospel narratives, we would only have a picture of the Pharisees as legalistic hypocrites who espouse strict laws but cannot keep them. Other sources tell us another story, though. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pharisees are called “the seekers after smooth things” because they are not really so strict in their observance in the laws, but rather, they find loopholes to get around strict Torah observance. Indeed, Jesus himself, seems to be making such a criticism of them with respect to the fifth commandment. Perhaps a more charitable, and historically accurate picture might be that they developed traditions and customs to help them keep the commandments, to be better, holier people, to keep them precisely from the kind of sin about which Jesus was speaking. Let us not be too hard on the old Pharisees, because is not what they did precisely what we do as a church? Do we not make canons and rules to order our common life for the common good, for the advancement of God’s kingdom?
I see in this text a tension between two very real realities in which we live and move daily. On the one hand, there is crucial importance of the converted heart and the personal experience of God that changes the way we live. On the other hand, there is the ongoing reality that we live a common life in the shared polis of the world. We all know of course, that life lived together, even in the community of the faithful is a far from any utopian ideal. Thus, the Pharisees were deeply concerned with ordering their shared life together in a faithful way. But, the Pharisees have become so concerned about what one of my old professors called “building a fence around the Torah” (that is to say that if I make a set of rules that keeps me from getting close to the commandments of God I will never break those rules), that they have lost the experience of a relationship with God. Jesus seeks to remind the disciples (and the Pharisees) that without an experience of God, following rules will not keep us from destructive behaviour; indeed, even our rules have the potential to become destructive.
Thus, I believe that Jesus’ words can be read, and must be read, on two levels. The first level – the surface level -- is his instruction that destructive behaviour, let us call it sin, comes from the heart. The surface reading only identifies the problem. The solution has variously been to make rules outlawing the sin and punishments for those who break the rules. This may be crucial to a well-ordered society, but does it bring us any closer to God? Rules are crucial, but do they give life or transform the heart? Therefore, I suggest we go deeper and explore a second level of meaning, and for this we return to the question of just why did Mark place this episode where he did, between stories of healings and demonstrations of power? The answer, I think, is clear. The heart is not changed because we force it to change; rather the heart is transformed by the power of God.
Sandwiched between stories of the feeding of the multitudes, Jesus walking calmly across a stormy sea, and the healing of the sick people of Genesaret on one side, and on the other, the casting out of a demon from the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, the curing of a deaf man, and another miraculous feeding of the multitudes, is it not clear, that God in Christ is transforming us? The feeding stories are signs that we are given the spiritual food we need to sustain us, the healing stories are signs that our human brokenness, and yes our sinfulness is mended by God, and the nature miracles are miracles in which the forces that threaten to overwhelm us are calmed. And in the centre of it all is this story about our hearts. The human heart can hurl rage and hurt and destructive power, or it can surrender its hurtful impulses to Jesus and be transformed and itself become the temple of holiness, the temple of the Lord. When the heart weeps, Jesus seeks to console it. When the heart rages, Jesus seeks to calm the raging waters and winds. When the heart hungers, Jesus seeks to feed it. Let us then go to the table of the Lord, whether or not we have first washed our hands.
c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves