s134g00 Somerton Park Sunday 22 3/9/2000
"hypocrites" Mark 7.6
We return, after quite a break hearing St John's gospel account, to our journey through the gospel of Mark in year B. Because Mark is such a short gospel with very little of Jesus' teaching included, in Year B the gospel accounts are supplemented with passages from St John.
Immediately we are again embroiled in the controversy between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. And as I listen to and read our gospel portion for today, even over the space of 2000 years and several changes of cultures, I think it is still possible to discern that something is going on here, behind the written words.
For with the best will in the world it is hard to understand the rather "strident" reply of Jesus to the seemingly innocuous question: "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" (Mark 7:5). Jesus was hardly likely to "win friends and influence people" by responding to such "innocent" questions by calling the inquirers "hypocrites".
The passage is not quite so simple as it might first appear on the surface. There are various traditions here which are being dispensed with; the tradition of washing their hands and cooking vessels, which come from the oral tradition, and Jesus declaring "all foods clean" which can by no means be described as a "human tradition". The issue of clean and unclean animals is fairly and squarely located in the words of the Old Testament, and Jesus is being very bold in suggesting he had the authority to disregard them.
However there is a further difficulty, for while we might well agree with Jesus' words: "For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come" - when we recall Jesus calling the religious leaders "hypocrites", he himself opens himself to charges of "slander, pride (and) folly" which end his own list of "evil intentions". (Mark 7:21).
Matthew records Jesus saying: "I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire ... when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:22-24). There is no evidence that Jesus apologised to the religious authorities ...
The seemingly innocuous question is a criticism by the religious authorities of the disciples failure to wash their hands before eating. One may presume that the religious authorities were not concerned about personal hygiene and cleanliness, worried that the disciples might succumb to (what we would recognise as) some bacterial infection. For them it was a religious question, did God accept the offerings of people who did not follow the tradition? Presumably therefore it is also a criticism of Jesus who was failing to ensure his disciples complied with their laws.
I trained as an engineer, and one of the things one learns as an engineer is to find what is the right question. There is little point in insisting that 3+3 = 6 (which is indeed the correct answer) when the question actually asked is 3x3. Often the most difficult part of a solution is finding the real question being asked. Once the real question is found it is a simple matter to apply the right formula, or access the appropriate resources, and the answer is easy. "Read the question" I keep saying to my boys.
So Jesus says in no uncertain terms that the religious question is NOT whose offerings are acceptable before God, but how do we get on with those around us. "Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, (and) pride, are all things which affect our relationship with those around us - they are all things done at the expense of other people. (Mark 7:21-22).
Indeed of course the religion of the authorities was at the expense of others. By positing that the religious question was whose offerings were acceptable, by definition, it meant that they assumed that some people were acceptable at the expense of others who didn't measure up. It really means that Jesus was not just calling the religious authorities hypocrites, he was actually charging them with "fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, (and) pride". And of course one of these, and the most serious one at that, was to come true as they were the ones really responsible for his crucifixion. And it was done in the name of religion ...
It is not as if Jesus interpretation of the real religious question was in any sense new. The Old Testament itself has plenty of evidence to suggest that the important thing is our relationship with one another, not whose offering is acceptable before God. The first murder was committed over the issue of whose offering was perceived as being more acceptable before God. Was the offering of the first-born Cain, "the fruit of the ground" less acceptable than the offering of the younger Abel, "the firstlings of his flock"?
In this sense Jesus added nothing to the faith of the Old Testament, and neither did he seek to change it. Jesus, in this matter was entirely in accord with the scriptural teaching of the Old Testament - and this should alert us as to the ease with which our priorities as "Christians" can be deflected. We are by no means immune, otherwise our whole raison d'etre ceases to be. If we are immune it means that the gospel is irrelevant to Christians.
The stridency of Jesus response to the seemingly innocuous question posed by the religious authorities shows that Jesus expected them to know that the question was inappropriate. So we too have to question if and when the exercise of our tradition actually is at the expense of others.
Jesus is on about encouraging us and enabling us to accept others for who they are, not keeping us and all in fear and trembling about our personal status before God, about the likelihood (or not) of own personal eternal salvation - massaging or manipulating our insecurities.
For all we might proclaim a "Christian" God, if others find more acceptance and empowerment elsewhere, then they have a conscientious duty to follow where they find that acceptance and empowerment. Of course I personally cannot conceive finding more acceptance and empowerment than that made evident and effective on the Cross and in the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. But our (the Church's) portrayal of that acceptance and empowerment is sometimes veiled. If people find grace and mercy elsewhere, there is no point in complaining that that grace and mercy is flawed. It is our portrayal of the grace and mercy of the one true God, whose steadfast love endures for ever, which is deficient.
If others find that their offerings are accepted in other circles and not in our own, then there is something amiss with our portrayal of our God. And I think that this impacts on issues like the Ordination of Women, and explains why there is such heat in the debate. While I can understand that some people find it new and disturbing - the answer to the religious question - is the offering of a priest who is a woman accepted? is easy. Of course it is.
Any expression which portrays any other individual as anything less than made in the image of God - male or female - with an inherent beauty and value to society and whose offerings are as acceptable as anyone else's, it is at the expense of that other person. That is to worship a God other than the Lord (which is the root meaning of fornication), that expression robs the other of their rightful dignity so it is theft, it so often leads to murder and sectarian strife, like avarice it is focussed solely on self, it is wicked when the manifold witness of the scriptures are quite plainly different, it is deceit because those scriptures are being misrepresented, it is licentious because the rightful authority of the Bible has been abrogated ...
The good news is of course that all our offerings are acceptable, provided only that they are not at the expense of someone else. We don't have to "measure up" and nor does anyone else. Jesus has died and has risen, for you, for me and for all.
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