Mark 7:1 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” 9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” 17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
This was a long Bible passage to read. But my thoughts will center on the words of verse 23: “All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
It was the morning of the day when we would sell our first Minnesota home, on Mercury Drive in Shoreview, and buy our second Minnesota home, on Laura Lane, just a mile away. An hour before we were to leave for the closing, there remained only one thing to do: to shampoo the wall-to-wall living room/dining room carpet. For that we had rented a steam cleaner. Should be a piece of cake. No more than fifteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes later, the carpet looked clean. But as the carpet started to dry I noticed a brown spot by where the sofa had been. So I refilled the steamer with hot water and soap, and cleaned the spot again. No more brown.
Well, not for another five minutes, until I noticed again that as the carpet dried, the spot returned, only bigger. So I refilled the steam cleaner and went at it again. Five minutes later, the spot is showing up again, twice as big. Five more minutes of steam cleaning, then drying, and now the spot is spreading across the room. I was in a panic. Why is this happening, when the sale of this house is only an hour away? We can’t NOT tell the buyer about the spot that will eat all of Minnesota within a week, at this rate. Arggh! We’ll have to write an addendum into the sale agreement, either to pay for professional cleaning, or for a new carpet.
Ten or eleven years later, I see this spot that nearly ate Shoreview as a picture of the human condition. The more I scrub away, the more the stain spreads. Yes, I’m talking metaphorically now. But for Jesus and his fellow Jews some two thousand years ago, this was all very literal. As though he did not have enough conflict in his ministry, today we read of another conflict that Jesus has with some fellow Jews, this time over the matter of ritual hand washing.
Now some people see in this a conflict between Moses and Jesus. But that’s too simplistic. For one thing, there’s no Old Testament law that says you have to wash your hands before every meal. Its a good idea, but not one that Moses wrote down. Later Jewish tradition came up with it, not for hygiene, but as an extra measure of safety against ritual uncleanness, in case you might have accidentally touched something legally unclean without knowing it, or in case something unclean touched you, like a flea. Or a Gentile. Or something that a Gentile touched. By washing your hands, you wouldn’t take the unclean-ness of that thing or that person into yourself whenever you ate. This is just a minor, minor thing, but Jesus’ critics were majoring in the minors. They were using such minor things to define who’s in and who’s out in their homes, their lives, their synagogues and at their tables.
The more they observed and even exceeded the letter of the Law in such ways, the more they violated the spirit of the Law. Like in the matter of Corban, in verse 11. That wasn’t in the Law of Moses either. The word, “Corban” means “treasury” as in “temple treasury.” So if you said that you have dedicated something to God, and called it “Corban,” then you don’t have to give it to anyone, not even your parents, not even if they’re starving to death, homeless in the streets. With the approval of these very critics, some people violated the fifth commandment, “Honor you mother and father,” for the sake of some later tradition, one that didn’t even come from the Bible, the law of “Corban.” We could say it about them too: the more they scrubbed away, the more they spread the stain of sin and selfishness.
And if that’s not enough conflict for one day, Jesus goes out publicly to say, “Its not what goes into you that defiles you, but what comes out of you.” Now there, as the Gospel writer points out, Jesus has just overruled even Moses, when it comes to food. Either this is revolutionary and right, or its dead wrong and rebellious. If he’s going to claim authority like that, he’d better be the Messiah.
Clean or unclean….dirty or defiled….. This isn’t just a Jewish thing. Nor is it just a First Century thing. Thirty-some centuries after Moses, if we never feel any inner defilement and need for cleansing, then we are either uniquely and extremely blessed, or we are oblivious. So, our Muslim friends do ritual washings of their hands, feet and face before they pray. Hassidic Jews have their ritual baths. And we have the one-time voluntary rite of baptism.
Others may try to make us feel shame, defilement and contamination, about things like our age, our weight or body shape, so they can sell us things. There’s a lot of shame directed at mental illness, disabilities, gender and sexuality, poverty, need or unemployment. That’s on top of defilement we may feel because of things we did, or failed to do, in our past, our present, our habits and hang-ups, our temptations and our tendencies. Oddly and sadly enough, often the wrong people feel the most shame and defilement, from what others have done to them, like torture, abuse, rape or ridicule, while the people who did these things to them we would hope felt dirty and defiled somewhere down deep in their souls. But so often they appear carefree and clueless.
So what do we do about the inner, internal kinds of uncleanness that we don’t like about ourselves, that seem to spread for all our efforts to clean them up? Well, for Moses and the ancient Israelites, God gave them purity regulations to observe. That’s a big part of some 632 laws within Jesus’ Bible, the Old Testament.
Some of these laws today make us go, “Hunh?” Like, your clothing cannot be made of two different kinds of fibers. But for the people there and then, those laws spoke exactly to the kinds of things that made them feel dirty and defiled within. And in Moses’ defense, those laws created and protected a unique and priceless gift to the world, namely, the Jews and Judaism. I have to believe that in their time, all those laws were just right for forming the people and the culture that gave us the Bible, and Jesus. Thanks be to God.
Furthermore, many of these Hebrew laws are self-evidently timeless and universal. They stand at the fount of all that is best in humanity. They bear the lofty grandeur of majestic moral mountaintops towering over us even while they display the moral and spiritual bedrock of the universe. Take the jointly-paired commandments that are at the heart of the Bible: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind, your soul and your strength,” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Take the Ten Commandments. We don’t have to insist that those be enshrined at the State Capitol. We are to serve as walking, living tablets.
Whenever I hear Christians say something like, “Oh, that’s so Old Testament, why are we even bothering with it?” or “We don’t have to pay that any attention because Jesus freed us from the law,” I cringe and want to ask, “So, now its okay to covet your bank account, and to steal it?” That’s breaking two commandments at a pop there.
Thirty-some centuries after Moses, we have our ways of dealing with our fears and feelings of defilement too. Not all of them are healthy. One of the biggest and baddest ways is what psychologists call “projection.” Projection is when we take something we don’t like about ourselves, something inside ourselves that causes us shame, guilt, or fear, and we hang it around someone else’s neck. And then we make that thing, or that person, the scapegoat, the target for all our shame, guilt and fear. Like the Pharisees were doing with the Gentiles. Bullies in school do that to people who seem frail, slow, unattractive or effeminate, when their real problem is these same things in themselves. We may do that to immigrants and people with different accents or different colors of skin. Nations do that whenever they start wars with other nations. Like us invading another country nearly ten years ago because they might have had weapons of mass destruction? In such times we are looking outward for messes to clean up, to distract us from the hard, uncomfortable work of addressing the messes inside ourselves. And it keeps us from growing up.
That’s what Jesus is challenging in today’s Gospel passage: the way in which so many fellow Jews were using the Law of Moses to turn their gaze outward toward external rules and regulations, to protect themselves against unclean things, and unclean people. All so they could avoid looking at the stains inside themselves, at the kind of dirt Jesus mentioned: “evil thoughts—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” As Jesus points out, the real source of contamination lies within each person. Its here, inside, where Jesus wants his disciples to start their housecleaning and their hand-washing.
But like I said, the more we scrub away at ourselves, the more the stain seems to spread. And that’s where the “clean revolution” comes in, the one that Jesus started in today’s Gospel passage. This is the spiritual equivalent of “the shot heard round the world.” Here’s why I call it a “revolution:” religion, law and politics usually serve as ways to try and clean ourselves up and make ourselves presentable, acceptable to ourselves, to others and to God. For reasons that I don’t entirely understand, God in his grace and wisdom went along with this in the Law of Moses and gave the Hebrews rules for ritual cleansing and sacrifice.
But when the time was right, Jesus came and reversed that equation. Instead of us cleaning ourselves up so that we can come to God, through Jesus we come to God so that God can clean us up. What pleases God is not how much we have straightened ourselves up and cleaned up our act. For if I have understood Jesus correctly, we’re too deep into the mud to clean ourselves up enough. Or the mud is too deep into us. What pleases God is when we come to God trusting God to accept us and to clean us up.
God loves us just the way we are; and he loves us too much to leave us that way. God cleanses us first of all when we ask forgiveness of God and he faithfully, eagerly gives it. God continues to cleanse us throughout our lives as he grants us His Spirit and works to change us from within.
This revolutionary approach of Jesus to inner spiritual cleansing is both liberating and more strenuous and demanding. That’s so typical of Jesus. On one hand, He’s upholding the basic, bedrock character of the Law; he’s even magnifying and intensifying it for his disciples. Pay more attention to these kinds of inner defilement, he’s saying. And yet he’s also undeniably breaking down the fence of external rules and regulations, of ceremonies, codes and taboos, that kept this basic, bedrock law a uniquely Jewish thing. He is taking down the fence of traditions, rituals and rites so that we Gentiles can have at the true treasures inside. And that’s liberating.
He’s not doing this out of disrespect for Moses and the Law, not because he is a rebel who just has to tweak people’s noses and push their buttons. Jesus breaks open this ritual shell, he tears down this fence of distinction between clean and unclean things and people, out of the deepest reverence for God His Father, out of deepest respect for Moses, the Law and His Bible, and out of the deepest love for us, precisely because Moses, the Law and His Bible predicted such a thing would happen.
For example, from Isaiah 56: “… foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. ” The Sovereign Lord declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel:“I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.” Those others are you and me.
It was always understood that the time for such a breaking of the barriers would come with the Messiah. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is presenting himself as that Messiah who shall cleanse and present people of all nations to God as acceptable. And we avail ourselves of this cleansing and release simply by trusting God to accept us and to cleanse us. And that’s the clean revolution: again, not that we must clean ourselves up for God to love us and accept us, but rather, we let God love us and accept us, and such love will clean us up.
So, what does all this require of the disciple of Jesus?
First: that we face what we fear about ourselves with great honesty and tender compassion. God already knows us better than we know ourselves, but that doesn’t make God love us any less. If God loves us just as we are, we can love ourselves and each other as we are, warts, dirt and all. That’s always the first step to our own healing and cleansing. By contrast, shame and condemnation only spread the stain and deepen it.
Second:) that we keep surrendering the dirt and stains we find in ourselves to God, in prayers of confession and faith, like the leper who said to Jesus, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” Of course he wanted to. And he did.
Third: the “rejection of projection”: that we stop ourselves whenever we begin projecting the things we fear or dislike about ourselves onto other people. One clue that we might be doing that is whenever some person or some group really gets our goat, and we obsess about them, and we can’t stop obsessing about them, because it hurts so good. We may have a legitimate gripe against them, they may indeed have done us dirty. But before we get too far down the road in our crusade against them, let’s ask ourselves, “Is there something negative about myself that I am targeting in them? Is it really my own weakness that is fueling my hatred for them?”
Fourth): That we too learn to distinguish between externals and internals, the basic bedrock things versus the outer shell. For example, every few months I get phone calls from people who want to know if we’re the kinds of Mennonites who enforce strict dress codes, and who don’t do any contemporary type music, just the old standards, and a capella please, because everything else is of the devil, they say (Good thing they didn’t come today!). I invite them to come, I try to talk it through with them, but I still prefer to disappoint them honestly rather than string them along.
Now, if they just don’t like certain kinds of music, that’s fine. But I’d like to tell them, don’t write off a whole genre of worship music as devilish just because you don’t like the package of rhythm or instruments they come in. Check out the lyrics; check out the spirit of the worshipers who are leading the songs and those who are singing them. Otherwise, you’re confusing the outer shell with the kernel inside.
But fifth:) I know why they’re asking such questions: they’re afraid of all the moral anarchy in our swiftly changing world, so every change is suspect to them. Frankly, I get spooked by some of the changes happening too. So its tempting to find our security in external, outward things that we can keep from changing.
But in the clean revolution of Jesus, we find our security in God and in God’s acceptance of us, and not in our performance of laws, nor the keeping of any mere traditions, however good they may be. That’s the fifth thing a disciple of Jesus needs to learn and to keep learning: have more faith in God than we have fear of the world. We’re not trying to impress God with our own goodness and cleanness; we’re to trust in the goodness of God to cleanse us and make us good. All we need to do is to ask for his help.
Like I did with the stain that almost ate Shoreview. I called up the company from which we rented the carpet steamer and asked for help. As I described the problem, the guy on the other end of the line chuckled and said, “Oh, you’re getting a brown-out. Its a chemical reaction from adding soap onto soap. So the more soap you add, the more the stain spreads.”
“So, what do I do?” I asked.
“Dump the soapy water in the tank, and just keep going over the spot with pure water, until the stain disappears.” Which I did, in the five or ten minutes left before we had to leave for the real estate office. And it worked. God’s pure water beat back the soap stain that almost ate Shoreview.
Which reminds me of these words from Paul, the former Pharisee who embraced Jesus’ “clean revolution:” (Would you look them over and then decide if you will confess them with me?)
Titus 3:3 “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. ”