Text: Mark 7:1-17
Wednesday, 2:38pm. I’m sitting at Global Gallery working on the sermon. An email comes from Gwen, back at the church office. She’s starting to ponder the bulletin cover image to go with today’s scripture, and is apparently discussing the matter with church Accountant Ellen Kreider at the nearby desk. The email reads: “Inquiring minds (Ellen’s and Gwen’s) want to know: who picks these lectionary verses anyway?”
The fact that I include this note at the beginning of the sermon might tell you how far along I was at that point.
The short answer to that inquiry is that back in the 80’s an ecumenical group of Christian leaders got together and created what is now the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s organized into a three year cycle and every Sunday includes readings from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Gospel, and a New Testament epistle. This is Year B, which features Mark’s Gospel. One of the beauties of the lectionary is that it enables congregations of many different persuasions to worship with the same scriptures each Sunday. Immaculate Conception Catholic Parish, Saint James Episcopal Church, North Broadway United Methodist Church, and Clinton Heights Luther Church, all less than half a mile away from us, are most likely hearing the same gospel reading as us this morning, not to mention congregations half way around the world. Another advantage of the lectionary, which some may consider a disadvantage, is that it challenges us to consider passages of scripture we’d just as soon skip over.
Sometimes we take the liberty to excuse ourselves from the lectionary and focus on another theme, like Christian Education Sunday in two weeks, or an extended theme or study like the month of October when we’ll look at the book of Revelation. Other times we submit ourselves to the structure of the lectionary and see what happens, like today and next week, which cover the first and second half of Mark chapter 7.
Broadly speaking, this first section of Mark 7 feels remarkably familiar. The Pharisees and Jesus are at it again, arguing over how to interpret Jewish law and what it means to honor God. Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites and skillfully outmaneuvers them, getting in a zinger about their failure to observe one of the most basic commandments, in this case, Honor your father and your mother. He ends by addressing the crowds around them with a brief parable. When the disciples are alone with Jesus afterwards they confess they don’t understand what Jesus had been talking about. Jesus clarifies. It’s almost a boilerplate outline for a standard gospel story.
But the details in this case feel overly culturally specific and technical, like we’re overhearing another family’s argument, working through issues unrelated to our own. So hang with me a bit because we are going somewhere with this. The Pharisees and scribes had developed practices referred to here as the tradition of the elders – such as practices around the proper and respectful and holy preparations for eating. This included a ritual washing of ones hands, and extended to washing of the food and the utensils and cups and pots and pans involved in the meal. To us germ and dirt conscious folks, this sounds like a generally good idea, but this kind of washing also carried religious significance having to do with purity and righteousness. These washings helped assure that the hands, the food, and the accessories were ritually clean in case any of them had come into contact with Gentiles along the way, or if anyone growing or transporting the food had violated the Sabbath while doing so, or such things.
Mark exaggerates and tips his hand of whose side he’s on when he says, parenthetically, that the Pharisees and all the Jews practiced this. The Pharisees see Jesus and his disciples – who, by the way, are all Jews – not following this procedure, and call them out for eating with defiled hands. The Pharisees are upset, offended.
One of things that comes to mind at this point are some lines from Tony Campolo. Tony Campolo is an evangelical speaker who’s done a lot to bring awareness of social justice to evangelical minded folks. He’s still going strong, although at 80 is less active than he once was. He used to be a pretty regular speaker at Mennonite Conventions, so maybe some of you have heard him speak. One of his favorite ways to begin a speech goes like this:
“I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids around the world died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. Third, What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit in church than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
As I pondered whether or not to include this today I noted that it’s a lot easier for a guest speaker like Tony Campolo to deliver this line than a long term pastor who has to stick around the following week and be accountable for cussing from the pulpit, but it’s hard to argue with the point it makes.
The lines come to mind because part of what’s going on here is that these two groups – The Jesus folks and the Pharisees, are offended and upset by entirely different things.
Jesus’ response, essentially, is to say that the Pharisees are offended by the wrong thing, that they are majoring on the minors, and minoring on the majors. Or, as Jesus puts it not so diplomatically, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Jesus follows this up with an example. He cites one of these commandments of God which all Jews, no exaggeration this time, would have considered authoritative. “Honor your father and your mother.” We sometimes think of this as referring primarily to young children respecting their adult parents, but this commandment also spoke to the honor and dignity due to aging parents from their adult children. Basically, that parents be cared for and their material needs be met in their older years. Honor.
What Jesus finds upsetting and offensive is a practice called Corban, which had to do with gifts offered in the temple. As best we can tell, Corban worked like this: gifts – like livestock or money – designated as Corban were tagged as gifts to God, and therefore qualified as fulfilling one’s religious obligations, such as caring for one’s parents. The more you give to Corban, the less you need to give for parental support. Since we’re in the season of first fruits, Corban would be kind of like Marlene standing up here and saying that this year we are encouraging those of you who give financial support to aging parents to instead give some of that money to the church. It will go towards God’s mission, so it’s all good. Understandably, Jesus has some strong words against this kind of fundraising. No matter how much it would get cloaked in religious language, it would be an injustice.
The easiest thing to do with this story, once we break the cultural code of what’s going on, is to scoff at the Pharisees and give Jesus, and ourselves, a mental high five for not falling into this kind of silliness. Christianity has a long tradition of defining itself over and against the shortcomings of “The Jews” and claiming moral and spiritual superiority. As a side note, this was already underway when the gospels were being written as the Jesus Jews were distinguishing themselves from other Jewish groups. The existence of this kind of Corban does not have strong historical support outside the gospels and some have wondered if Mark is here blowing out of proportion a rarely abused practice in order to draw a sharper line between the two disputing groups.
A more helpful, although difficult, approach, I suggest, is to go the Tony Campolo route and consider the ways that we ourselves fall into the same kind of traps as Mark’s Pharisees. To hear the words of Jesus not as affirmations of our own goodness, but as a challenge to our own attitudes, our judgmentalism, our failure to perceive and act against injustice. Our tendency to major on minors and minor on majors.
Since this passage deals so specifically with food and eating practices, it made me think of the words of my favorite food author, Michael Pollan. He’s written books like The Omnivores Dilemma and, The Botany of Desire and has been majorly influential in the movement in the US away from highly processed foods towards natural and, preferably, locally grown food. He also has a lovely little handbook called Food Rules: an eater’s manual which includes wonderful bits of advice and commentary on how to eat in a way that brings health to your body and society. His brief seven word mantra, which he unpacks throughout the book, is Eat food, mostly plants, not too much. He distinguishes food from what he calls ‘edible food-like substances,’ or, in other words, a lot of what passes for food these days. Eat food, mostly plants, not too much. His advice includes statements like this:
First under “Eat food”: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle” (where the processed foods are shelved). “Eat only foods that will eventually rot.” “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”
Under “Mostly Plants:” “Eating what stands on one leg (mushrooms and plants) is better than eating what stands on two legs (fowl), which is better than eating what stands on four legs (cows, pigs, and other mammals).” “Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.” “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.” “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.” “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.”
Under “Not too much.” “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re probably not hungry.” “It’s OK to be a little hungry.” “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper.” “Do all your eating at a table.” “Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.” “Eat with other people whenever you can.” And, his final rule, Rule # 83 is “Break the rules once in a while.”
Eat food, mostly plants. Not too much.
So the book is kind of an updated and more hip version of Leviticus.
Even though I’m a ways from following all these rules, I do aspire to move in that direction. I’m grateful to be on the receiving end of parents who garden and can and grow healthy animals for meat, and a partner who gives lots of attention toward cooking healthy for our family. I love our backyard chickens and fresh eggs, I love living within walking distance of a happening Farmer’s Market, even though we’re often priced out of a lot of it, and I love writing sermons at a coffee shop dedicated to fair trade. There’s a certain process of purification about the whole journey, and a certain honoring of the body that affects other aspects of life. In its best sense, I’m guessing this is what the Pharisees where aiming for in their practices. To acknowledge that food and our bodies are sacred gifts from God, and to approach this with reverence, to develop practices that remind us that our hands and our food and even the pots and pans we use to prepare it are a part of a holy endeavor. Before we eat we baptize our hands with the waters of creation and commit them to carrying out the wondrous task of honoring the Source of all Life and all Being. We fill our bodies with goodness, and we seek to be agents of goodness in our world. I love that I am a descendant of people who have lived close to the land, and I love the traditions of the elders that have been passed down to me, many of which I hope to pass on to our own children.
But I also wonder if I can become overly focused on these kinds of things, or over satisfied with this purity, as if I’ve satisfied some kind of holy obligation and can deduct that from other obligations. Or if the places I go to obtain these kinds of foods cut me off from whole swaths of people who are eating other kinds of foods, more readily found in corner stores and Wal-Mart and MacDonalds. Because of the way government subsidies are allocated to make mass produced industrial food cheap, the kind of food we can afford to eat is one of the great social dividing walls of our society. It ought to be upsetting and offensive that good, healthy, simple food is not accessible to all. That some can afford to be pure and others not.
And I have very little doubt that Jesus would give up purity to share communion over a twinky and a Mountain Dew with someone who needed a companion. And there would be no judgement around that table. And the moment would made holy by the love that is present.
When his disciples inquire as to the meaning of all this, Jesus points them beyond talk of food and into the condition of the heart. It is the inner life, and the gifts of the Spirit which are found there, which provide the soil in which all of this grows. This passage ultimately points us back to that place as the starting point for living a life of goodness and justice and honoring ourselves and others.