September 2, 2018 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Year B, Proper 17, Track 2, Revised Common Lectionary
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Lord, speak to us this day: and may we have ears to hear.

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Today’s gospel reading was a long one—and you can blame me for that. The lectionary, our schedule of readings, actually abbreviated this passage, but in doing that it left out some verses that are key to what’s going on … so I decided to take advantage of a permission in the Prayer Book and put them back in.[1] I did this after it was too late to change the bulletins, so you might have noticed hearing some lines that weren’t printed in! Let’s dive in and figure out what’s happening between Jesus and this group of Pharisees.

First of all: this is not a story about Jesus setting aside the Jewish law. All too often Christian preachers have stereotyped Judaism as a religion of legalistic ritual and Christianity as setting people free from all that. The fact is, this story is about a debate within first-century Judaism among people who were equally committed to observing the law but had different interpretations of how to do that. This group of Pharisees followed a particular ritual handwashing practice that was derived originally from the practices priests used in the Temple. For them, bringing these Temple-based practices into the home was a way of making everyday life holy. But—contrary to what the narrator Mark says—this was hardly something that all first-century Jews practiced. Many others, including Jesus and his disciples, seem to have had a simpler understanding of the law that didn’t require these kinds of ritual handwashings for ordinary people who weren’t priests.

Now washing your hands in a certain way could very well be a way to honor God in your daily life—just as much as any other spiritual practice you or I might do today, like saying grace before meals or wearing a cross around one’s neck. The problem from Jesus’ point of view doesn’t seem to have been the handwashing itself but rather two other things. First: this group of handwashers takes it upon themselves to police the practices of others. They call out Jesus’ disciples for not having the same level of observance. And second, and more important: this group of handwashers seem to have gotten so tied up in public displays of religiosity that they’ve lost sight of the point of it all: the love of God and neighbor.

They show this in the verses that get left out of today’s reading by the lectionary , which are about their interpretation of what it means to make a vow. In this group’s interpretation, a person can get out of the obligation to care for one’s parents financially simply by pledging that money as Corban, which meant a sacrificial offering to the temple. So making a gift to the temple could take priority over the actual commandment to care for one’s parents. That was a clear violation of the written Torah handed down from Moses. Later rabbinic Jewish scholars agreed with Jesus on this point.[2] So what Jesus is doing is something very like the story he tells elsewhere about the hypocrisy of pointing out a speck in someone else’s eye while you have a log in your own. This group of people turn a blind eye to a practice that not only breaks Torah but also defrauds vulnerable, aging people—yet they feel they have the right to criticize Jesus’ disciples for having a less rigorous ritual handwashing practice than they do.

Now we live in a culture far removed from first-century Judaism. But this story still has much to say to us today. Because we do live in a time when religious leaders all too often make a show of public piety and police others’ behavior instead of attending to their own behavior and caring for the vulnerable. Public piety, like the endless culture wars about school prayer, or saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” as if inflicting Christian practices on non-Christians is a way to win people over to your faith. Policing others’ behavior, like outlawing people’s marriages or forcing them to use the bathrooms you think they should be using. It’s one thing to disagree with others and try to convince them of your point of view. It’s a very different thing to try to use your political power to control their behavior because you don’t agree with it.

And just as the test for Jesus was how the vulnerable are treated, so the same test applies for us today. We heard a similar message today in the letter of James, which says that true religion that is pure and unstained before God is to care for orphans and widows. Aging parents, orphans, widows—these were the most vulnerable people in the ancient Mediterranean world. Many people in those categories are still vulnerable today, and we might add others to the list: refugees. Children. Those who have endured abuse or domestic violence. Those who are mentally ill. Who are the orphans and widows of 2018, in the United States, in Santa Rosa, California? How do we, as a community, care for those who are vulnerable among us? That’s the test of our piety.

Here at Incarnation I’m proud of some of the ways we try to do that. Our Open Table ministry feeds a hot breakfast to more than 100 people each Sunday. Our members volunteer at places like the Living Room, a women’s and children’s day center that started right here at Incarnation twenty-six years ago, and like the Luther Burbank Elementary School. Our St. Andrew’s food bank in Monte Rio feeds people all over the West County area. Those are all good things. But Jesus calls us to do all those things and more—to love each person as we love Jesus, and as we love ourselves.

As Episcopalians we have a lot of ritual practices: vestments and vessels, bowings and signs of the cross. We even have handwashing rituals—you’ll see me wash my hands in a few minutes before stepping to the table for the eucharistic prayer. All those things are lovely, and they can be very good. But they’re good only as far as they lead us to grow in love for God and for each other. May God lead us deeper along that path of love today, and every day. Amen.

[1] See “Concerning the Lectionary,” Book of Common Prayer p. 888.

[2] See, for example, tractate Nedarim, and the discussion in Bruce D. Chilton, Darrell L. Bock, and Daniel M. Gurtner, eds., A Comparative Handbook to the Gospel of Mark: Comparisons with Pseudepigrapha, the Qumran Scrolls, and Rabbinic Literature (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 234ff.