The Heart of the Problem

Notes from a sermon on Mark 7:1-23 preached at Wormley Free Church on 27.02.11

Out, damned spot! out, I say!

So cries Lady Macbeth as she scrubs away at the blood she imagines staining her hand after the murder of King Duncan and Banquo, Macbeth’s former friend. But alas, in her fevered imagination, the mark will not go, and brands her as guilty of their deaths to all.

Every English school child has to study a Shakespeare play. For me it was Macbeth, and I loved it. It was the intrigue, the strange otherworldness and the darkness that appealed to me. Various scenes stuck in the mind, and this was one of them, the Lady Macbeth, having succeeded in her machinations, becomes haunted by what she has done to get her husband on the throne, and starts sleep walking, guiltily declaring through her frenzied hand washing what she has done to any who would take note.

There is sometimes the suggestion that we live in a free era where we no longer follow traditions or rituals. There is certainly no doubt that our society today is less formal than it used to be – my friends in Sierra Leone can’t get over the fact that we don’t use titles and ceremonies and procedures anywhere near as much as they do – but I have a sneaky suspicion that just because we’re less formal, doesn’t mean that we don’t have traditions and rituals. A great example is the one that today’s passage is all about, hand washing.

Think about it, wherever you turn in a hospital, you’re asked to wash your hands – or at least use an anti-bacterial spray. Our children have it drummed into them from an early age that they must wash their hands after going to the toilet or before eating. The pressure to conform to such rituals is enforced by TV advertising pushing various sprays, foams and wipes that kill all known bugs and nasties with one simple application. These rituals are of course important. If we don’t wash, then there is a fair chance that not only will we begin to smell, but our health will suffer. In hospitals this becomes more stark, if we don’t wash our hands then germs can be transferred from one person to another, spreading superbugs and other nasties.

I remember when we first got our Dyson vacuum cleaner. It has a transparent body so that you can see exactly what dirt and dust is being sucked from the carpet as you go. It was a scary thing the first time we used it, horrifying to see how much muck it was able to extract from what we had previously thought were clean floors! For a little while we took to vacuuming more frequently, religiously if you like – although I must confess, it didn’t last long!

There has been a growing trend to look for deeper cleansing if we are going to look and feel clean and healthy. We should adopt certain rituals such as regular exercise. We can call upon all sorts of potions and chemicals to deep clean our pores, and medical procedures to cleanse us inside as well as out! The link to diet is also raised. To be healthy and ‘clean’ you also need the right sort of diet – eat your five portions of fruit and veg each day, take certain yoghurts to promote good bacteria in your gut, and avoid fatty, greasy food which can clog up not just your pores, but also your arteries! After the Christmas binge comes the ritual of New Year’s exercise.

Strange how having gone through that list I am now feeling rather unhealthy and queasy…

Religion has also picked up upon the importance of cleanliness for healthy living. This goes with the instinctive feeling that we have that being clean requires more than simply washing. Many religions have rituals that involve washing – not just First Century Judaism as in today’s passage. Hand washing is also a feature of the Bahá’í Faith, Hinduism, Isalm, Shintō and Christianity (eg. Priests washing their hands as part of a eucharist service in more liturgical churches and of course baptism and christenings), and this is what Jesus got into a debate about with the religious leaders of his day in today’s passage.

In the Old Testament, there are various laws given for ceremonial washing which had become and been developed as part of everyday Jewish life. One of these was handwashing before eating. I remember when I stayed visited Israel and stayed at a Jewish hotel for a week that there was a special basin in the restaurant for visitors to use to wash their hands to fulfil this. On one particular occasion, Jesus’ disciples were caught eating without having washed their hands in this way, and Jesus was picked up on this. ‘Why do you let your disciples eat with defiled hands?’ The implication is that if they eat with defiled hands, that they become defiled, dirty.

It is worth noting before we get too far, that something new is happening here. Those who picked Jesus up on this were from Jerusalem. Up until this point, Jesus’ sphere of influence was restricted to Galilee and the surrounding areas, a country boy speaking to country people. Now, however, this has changed. In chapter 6 we read that King Herod had heard about him, and here his actions are causing others in the capital city to sit up and take note. There’s more at stake here than just showing that he was impacting both town and country. Jerusalem in Mark’s Gospel is identified with the centre of opposition to Jesus – this is why Jesus spends the first part of the Gospel hiding away in the country and telling people to keep what he is doing a secret – if word gets to the city too soon they will prevent him from achieving all he wants to achieve. This is where the plots to kill him are hatched. This is the place of his execution.

So how does Jesus respond to their accusations?

To begin with, he doesn’t try to deny them, or apologise for them, or make excuses. I wonder if maybe sometimes there is something that we can learn from this about our response when questions are raised about our beliefs and practises as Christians today.

But what he does do, however, is turn the argument against his opponents. To do this he uses another ritual to make the point. The Law says that you should honour your Father and Mother – they would agree with him on that one. However, there was a tradition of ‘Corban’ – if you dedicated something to God, it was exempt from other calls on it. This is a tradition meant to uphold the importance of sacrifice to God, of putting him first. Again, both Jesus and those opposing him would have been happy with that principle. There was a practise, however, of turning this into a loophole, and declaring things Corban, dedicated to God, that would otherwise be regarded as needing to be given to parents. This was seen as a legitimate way of holding it back from them, or rather holding onto things you’d otherwise have to give away. This Jesus, declared, is hypocrisy.

You say you’re seeking to honour God, and yet it is God who has said that you should honour your parents, and you’re disobeying his command on the basis of human tradition! Human tradition and practise, Jesus was implying, should be shaped by Scripture, not the other way around.

The same thing, he implies, is happening here with ritual washing – this is a practise set up by the Elders, i.e. it is human tradition – and so rather than honouring God is actually bringing him into disrepute by using him as an excuse to not honour parents!

Makes me wonder if we do similar things without realising it – how often do we read the Bible in terms of what we think it ought to say, reading it through the eyes of our prejudices, culture or misunderstandings, without letting it speak for itself.

The other side to his rebuttal is that of questioning the whole point of the hand washing rituals and the laws that inspired them in the Old Testament. What were they there for? Does washing your hands really make you clean and healthy? For that matter, looking at the food regulations, do they make you clean and healthy? As Lady Macbeth found out, there are some stains you can’t remove by washing. No these were simply signposts pointing towards the real agent of thorough cleansing…

Jesus speaks about these very things – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All of these things come from within us and defile us. No soap will cleanse these, no ritual will take away the shame and guilt of having thought or done these things. There’s an even deeper level that just the effect of these things too. The very fact that we act in this way, or think in this way, is symptomatic of a basic fault in our making – something is broken inside humanity that causes or allows us to be like this – this is not how we were made to be. Will washing our hands deal with this?

No. The rituals are simply signposts, flagging up the problem and pointing towards a solution. God didn’t give an arbitrary set of laws to his people, they were there for a reason, to achieve something. If they don’t in and of themselves make a difference, they must lead the way to something that does.

Jesus doesn’t, however, reveal what the answer is here, and yet allows his disciples to eat without washing, without following the rituals.

Does this act of what the religious leaders see as tradition breaking, of defilement, actually act as another signpost? Is it pointing to the answer? Reminds me of the time when Jesus was brought up over his followers not fasting. His answer was blunt and to the point,

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them” Mark 2:17

Rather than asking what is the answer, perhaps Jesus is forcing us to ask, who is the answer…

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