Mark 7:1-8, 14-15

August 30, 2015


A father opens the door to greet his daughter’s date. There stands a young man, cap on backwards, jeans that sag practically to his knees, a diamond stud in his lower lip, and wearing a set of earphones. The young man grunts hello and comes in.

The father is more than a little taken aback. He goes upstairs where his daughter is putting on the finishing touches of her makeup. “I don’t think you should go out with this boy,” says Dad. “He doesn’t look like a nice person.”

The daughter is shocked. “Daddy,” she says, “If he wasn’t such a nice person why would he be doing 500 hours of Community Service?”

Sometimes you can judge by appearances. Sometimes not.

In our lesson for today from Mark’s Gospel, the Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law had come from Jerusalem. They gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees, being devoted Jews, did not eat unless they gave their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they came from the marketplace, they did not eat unless they washed. And they observed many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with unclean hands?”

This was not a debate about etiquette. The Pharisees didn’t have Miss Manners on speed dial. They were asking about a far more serious matter. They were asking Jesus, “Who is worthy to come before the Lord?” It’s a question many churches still struggle with today. Like the head waiter of the elegant restaurant, many Christians want to be “holy bouncers,” who stand at the velvet rope and decide who is acceptable and who is unacceptable in the Lord’s club. After all, we can’t just let anyone into church, can we?

The Pharisees’ question is especially pointed when we read that they have just come from Jerusalem. Most likely, they had to pass through the large marketplace there. In the marketplace, they would have come into contact with Gentiles, non-Jews. This contact with non-Jews made them ritually unclean. Before they could be acceptable in God’s sight again, they had to wash away the “taint” of the Gentiles. Gentiles? Yes, that’s us. They didn’t want to be tainted by contact with slimy, creepy, crawly creatures like you and me. You see, we were once on the outside looking in. If we could see ourselves as those who were once discriminated against because of our ethnic origins, we might be slower to discriminate against others.

But there is another side to the Pharisees’ actions. Psalm 24:3-4a reads, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?”

The answer: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts ….”

Being acceptable before God is important.

When a young man named Isaiah first heard God’s call to become a prophet to the nation of Israel, he cried out, “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among the people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Philosopher C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself all together or see yourself as a small, dirty object. In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God is that–and, therefore, know yourself as nothing by comparison–you do not know God at all.”

God’s chosen people, the Jews, had been in the presence of God. They were acutely aware of God’s holiness. God is over here, and imperfect humanity is way over there, and in between us stands a Grand Canyon of sin. Who is worthy to come before the Lord? We must respect the Pharisees’ position. They wanted to honor God. For centuries, the Jews had practiced external rituals of cleanliness, like the washing of hands and feet, to remind them of the holiness of God. But somehow, over the centuries, their reminder became a rule, and the rule became a religion.

The Lever soap company came out a few years ago with an advertising catchphrase that went like this: “Lever 2000 cleans all your 2000 parts!” Well, there’s one place that even the best soap can’t reach–it can’t give you a clean heart.

“Jesus 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. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

“Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, every one, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him “unclean” by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him “unclean.”’”
Jesus is saying here, “Don’t judge your devotion to God by how clean your hands are. Your devotion to God shows in your ethics, your attitudes, your motives. And most important, your devotion to God shows in your love for others.”

People are more important to God than religious rituals. That is what Jesus is saying to them. Remember where Jesus had just been. He and his friends had been ministering in Gennesaret. This is how Mark describes Jesus’s ministry there: “And wherever he went–into villages, towns, or countryside–they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.”

Jesus let sick people touch him! Let that sink in: Jesus let sick people touch him. The diseased and disabled were ritually unclean under pharisaical law. They were barred from offering sacrifices in the Temple. They were unacceptable in the sight of God. The Pharisees were so concerned with ritual cleanliness that they washed themselves after passing through the marketplace, because they had been in the presence of Gentiles. Yet Jesus wasn’t simply in the presence of Gentiles and sick people and sinners–he touched them!! He let them touch him! And everyone who received his touch was healed. Restored. Made acceptable in God’s sight.

What a beautiful thought. Jesus let unclean people touch him.

I wonder what would happen if unclean people started visiting our worship service? Homeless people. AIDS sufferers. Drug addicts. Women of the street. How would we react? I’m just asking. Where are people today apt to touch Jesus if not in a church? I don’t know any place else they can turn for spiritual help. The government can’t provide it. Nor can the schools. Certainly not the bars nor the centers of entertainment. Where can they turn except the church? And what if they did come here? Could we handle it? Or would we head toward the exits? Just asking. Our religion is a good thing. Our worship services are a good thing. The way we dress for worship is a good thing. But if our religious activities stand as a barrier between other people and God, they no longer are a good thing.

It’s a scary thing to think about, isn’t it? What’s really scary is how far the church of 2015 is from what Jesus means for it to be. Just a thought.

The Pharisees were really good people. They really were. They were a lot like us. They wanted rules that are set in concrete. They wanted to know where the boundaries are. These people are bad, these people are good. These people are acceptable; these people are unacceptable. These people are clean; these people are dirty. It’s very difficult to do that. Where do we draw the line? And, if we draw a line, what do we do with Jesus’ message that he has come not to call the well, but those who are sick?

It’s a problem. Legalism comes in many forms. There are some Christians who would draw a line that excludes gays, for example. There are other Christians–of a more liberal orientation–who would draw a line that excludes people who drive SUVs. I heard about one group that draws the line at peanut butter.

Charles Swindoll shares the story of a missionary family who came under harsh scrutiny and judgment from other missionary families in their community because of their “sin” of indulging in peanut butter. Because peanut butter was a luxury that had to come from the States, some of the other missionaries considered it a sign of spiritual maturity to abstain from peanut butter. Giving up peanut butter was, in their perspective, a sacrifice for their faith. When this young missionary family continued to eat peanut butter, the other missionaries ostracize them. In the end, the young missionary family gave in to discouragement and left the mission field altogether.

Legalism comes in many forms. Christ cuts through them all. God loves people, he taught us. All people. People on the left, people on the right, people who wear crew cuts, people who wear dreadlocks. God even loves sinners. Thank goodness for that. No, thank God for that. Besides, legalistic formulas never work very well anyway.

A lady wrote to Reader’s Digest to tell about something that happened at her dog training club. This club tested canine obedience by having their pets sit in a row while the judges placed a sausage in front of each. The dogs were supposed to resist temptation until the owners gave them a signal, permitting them to eat the treats.

According to this lady’s report, one animal came up with a novel approach to this situation. He ran down the line devouring the sausages in front of all the other dogs until he came to the one that was at his own place. Then he obediently sat in front of it waiting for his owners command.

Legally, I suppose, he won. But he certainly defeated the purpose of the contest.

Anyone reading the New Testament for the first time would conclude that the real enemy of faith is legalism. Particularly legalism that tries to determine who is in and who is out. However, if we were to look at the subsequent history of Christian churches over the centuries, we would conclude that some Christians either weren’t listening or don’t care, for so often, it is in the church that legalism still resides.

In case you somehow missed the Gospel somewhere along the way, let me say it again: The only thing God cares about is people. And it doesn’t matter who those people are, what they look like or what they’ve done. Even if they are prodigals off in a far country giving themselves to riotous living, there is a patient Loving Divine Parent at home, waiting, praying, hoping, ready to accept and forgive. And if the boy comes home smelling of the pigpen, that’s all right. The Loving Parent won’t stand apart and order the prodigal to clean himself off. The Loving Parent will run out and throw his arms around the prodigal and welcome him home. That’s the Gospel.

People make bad choices, to be sure. And usually they pay for those choices. But it’s not our business to make sure they pay. It’s our business to help them put their lives back together again.

I know we all know that. Deep in our hearts we know that. Maybe what we forget is that we are Jesus to the world. Let me ask again, where will people today touch Jesus if not in church? More hurting, distressed people need to touch Jesus today than ever before. Where can they go? Where can they turn? Can we truly visualize the church, not the church building, but the church which includes all people who love Christ–can we truly visualize ourselves as Christ’s body, reaching out to touch, and allowing ourselves to be touched by broken people today?

Every generation draws its own lines concerning who is clean and unclean.
Some years ago I was serving a small church. After the service one Sunday, I noticed a woman who was lingering in the back of the church. Obviously, she had some agenda. She confessed that her 18-year-old daughter had given birth to a child out of wedlock. She added reluctantly, “Well, it should be baptized, shouldn’t it?”

I said that we would discuss the matter with the church Board. After some debate, the Board voted to approve the baptism. The baptism was set to take place the fourth Sunday in Advent. I remember that day the church was full. As well, this congregation had the custom of asking this question as part of the baptismal service: “Who will stand with this child?” At this point, friends, sponsors, and the family would stand up and remain standing during the remainder of the service.
I, and several of the Board members, began to worry that no one but the young woman’s mother would stand up with her. When the question was asked, it looked as if our worst fears were being realized. Then one man stood up. It was one of the Board members, a man not known for his compassion or sentimentality. Then some of the other Board members stood, followed by a young couple who had recently joined the church. Soon, a number of people were standing with the young mother. Tears of joy coursed down her cheeks.

I remember something else. I remember the Scripture lesson read earlier in the service that Sunday: 1 John 4: “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God … If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.”

I like to think that the folks in that small church understood that the Gospel is not about drawing lines, but about helping people find God. Legalism comes in many forms. According to Jesus, none of it matters to God. What God cares about is people.