From the Inside Out
A Meditation on Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church September 2, 2018
When we read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, it is very tempting to believe that it is a story of Jesus vs. the scribes and Pharisees. A boxing match or debate competition in which the competitors go round after round. There is almost always an audience, although it is difficult to tell whose side they are on. Perhaps that is because everyone wants to be on the winning side, and they aren’t really sure which side will come out on top. So, who is declared the winner? That probably depends upon what you believe about the incarnation of Jesus and the purpose of his life on this earth. Does there have to be a “winner”?
To view Jesus’ interactions with these religious leaders as some sort of battle of wits is to misconstrue Jesus. It is never “Jesus vs. Anyone.” It is always Jesus alongside everyone. Jesus is never the enemy, never the competition. Jesus is the one who desires for each person to live into the fullness of God’s vision of mercy, compassion and love. A scribe, a Pharisee, an outcast leper, an unclean woman, Judas, Peter, Mary Magdalene: all worthy of God’s love and welcome. Jesus is the one who desires that each of us live undivided lives, lives which lead us into greater wholeness. Jesus invites us to set the pretending aside, and Jesus unsettles us with the reminder that holiness does not equate with comfort. To live a holy life is to live with discomfort.
Here come the religious leaders, and they want to know why Jesus doesn’t send his disciples to wash their hands before sitting down for dinner. It’s not only the right thing to do. It is Tradition. There is nothing wrong with washing your hands. It’s a very wise practice. Washing our hands keeps us healthy, though this washing has nothing to do with hygiene and health. Ritual washing is and was a sacred and symbolic act of acknowledging that when we enter God’s presence we desire to be clean. The ritual washing reflects our awareness of God’s holiness. The problem, as Jesus illustrates, is that washing our hands is meaningless if we are not going to examine our lives.
Jesus, instead of answering the question, gives them a concrete example of how their selective blindness is causing damage to their own community through an abuse of Corban. The practice of Corban allowed someone to declare that their assets are dedicated to God. That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? It is not unlike when someone leaves a bequest to a congregation. Here at Grace we are blessed to have bequests for the maintenance of our organ and for the creation of a library. Memorials and honorariums also help support our Loaves & Fishes food pantry and Meals on Wheels ministries. Gift and blessing.
This was a different story. Somehow, someone got the idea of abusing the practice of Corban. They began to use it as an escape clause. They began to use it as a way of avoiding providing financial support for their aging parents. Yes, you heard that correctly. Say a son no longer wants to support his parents because he fears that caring for his parents will deplete his savings. All he has to do is declare that his property and other assets are Corban, dedicated for God’s use. The son retains everything, holds the funds in trust for God, enjoys a comfortable life, looks like a saint. The parents are left in poverty. Eons before long term care insurance or social security or retirement plans, there was only one retirement plan: your children!
Terribly twisted, isn’t it? It is an ancient and modern story. You can dress it up anyway you want, but hiding assets so that you can keep them for yourself rather than caring for your family is a tragedy for everyone involved. It’s dirty money.
Jesus names it. That’s what dirty looks like says Jesus. It’s not about the dirt on your hands. It’s not about the dust you pick up when you walk through the marketplace. It’s about the dirt on the inside of you heart when you intentionally neglect the vulnerable in your midst. The religious leaders had come to embrace and endorse a practice which began with good and generous intentions but had degenerated into abuse. They were allowing it. Their silence condoned it.
You have to begin to wonder who among these religious leaders was drawing the short straw. Did they cast lots to see who would be the “lucky one” to present a question to Jesus today? After a few encounters, you know they had to experience some angst about publicly engaging Jesus in theological dialogue. He takes their question and turns it back on them with a much more difficult, much more challenging question.
He doesn’t do this to shame them. He does this because he loves them; because he is a fellow Jew. He does this because, like prophets before him, he has come to be a light in the darkness. He has come to be the shepherd who rescues the flock. He has come to save the lost, and sometimes those lost are the ones in authority. The trappings and expectations of being in leadership can cause blindness. I think that is one reason I so appreciate our denomination’s organizational structure. There is a balance of clergy and lay members at every level. It doesn’t mean we can’t lose our way or make serious mistakes (we have in the past and I’m sure we will again), but there is the strong hope that there is wisdom in community. There are always opportunities for truth to speak to power.
But what happens when a tradition goes awry? What happens when something becomes so set in stone that everyone is afraid to touch it? Clearly, that is what had happened with Corban. Debi Thomas, theologian and blogger, tells a more recent experience of the potential damage that tradition may cause. Thomas writes of a “law” she encountered in her faith community that caused her much angst as a young girl. The practice: women of all ages were not allowed to wear jewelry of any kind. Not even wedding bands or engagement rings. When all her friends at school got their ears pierced, her ears remained whole. She couldn’t even wear the beaded friendship bracelet she made at a friend’s sleepover. As a young girl, Thomas remembers resenting Jesus over her church’s policy. She felt embarrassed at school, and wondered why Jesus would want her to feel excluded. Then she learned the story behind the tradition which dated back to a charismatic revival in South India. Thomas writes:
At a time when gold meant social capital in India, when even Christian families judged each other’s worth by the weight of the jewelry their women wore, when girls whose fathers couldn’t produce enough jewelry for their dowries had to remain unmarried, the decision to forsake “ornaments” in the name of Jesus was a radical one. It spoke powerfully to the equalizing power of the Gospel. No longer would my great-grandparents and their peers participate in the snobbery of their time and place; instead, they would live counter-culturally and practice what Jesus preached — even if it meant losing their social standing and family honor. No matter what the cost, they would embrace humility, simplicity, and equality as testimonies of Christ’s non-discriminating love. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1898-vain-worship
Thomas’ ancestors took a strong, and unpopular stand for the vulnerable in their midst. What Thomas discovered was that a necessary position at the time became an untouchable tradition that unintentionally turned off a new generation. It wasn’t harmful in the same way as the sometimes abusive Corban practice, but it had lost its meaning and intention. When the agreement to give up the wearing of jewelry was made, it was a testimony. It was a sacrifice. It took younger voices, newer voices to recognize that the practice had become outdated. It took younger perspectives to notice that a tradition no longer held its power.
Churches are famous for getting mired in traditions. To be proud of traditions. But churches can also forget the reason the traditions were created in the first place. As a new church we have had to explore which practices to keep and which to re-imagine or adapt. The opportunity to do this helped us examine which traditions are in keeping with our church’s mission.
This whole scenario about dirty hands reminds us of how easy it is to get our priorities confused. Even the most learned religious leaders of Jesus’ day became so lost that they wouldn’t take a stand against neglect of the elderly. No one had been brave enough to raise this question, until Jesus came along. Rather than condemning them, however, Jesus’ critique invited them into new life. He was asking them to consider which traditions are life giving and which are life depleting; which traditions honor God and which traditions dishonor God.
These are critical questions for us to continue to ask ourselves. On a personal level, on a community level. Our hands can be scrubbed clean, but we think that we can hide what is in our hearts. We can try, but hiding only causes us to become lonelier and more discouraged. Let us ask ourselves, how might God wash our hearts? What traditions have I created in my own life that are not life-giving? What traditions have we created as a community that make it challenging for new friends to encounter God here? Do my daily routines, my daily practices strengthen my heart’s compassion? Or have I fooled myself that I am doing God’s work, when I am only looking out for myself?
It’s tricky to talk about hypocrisy…really Jesus is the only one who can do it safely! So though it would be tempting to call out public figures and situations, let’s instead turn to our own hands, focus on our own hearts. Together, attuned to the Spirit, our eyes can be opened to places where traditions have tripped us up. Ways in which we have forgotten how to love in word and deed.
Dirty hands are hands that have been working, serving, playing, getting messy. Let’s not worry so much about our outsides. God is much more concerned with the softness of our hearts than the purity of our hands.
Thanks be to God, who pursues us, continually inviting us into the renewal of life. Amen!