Sermon for Pentecost 12, Year B
Based on Mk. 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Today in our gospel, Jesus is engaged in a conflict with some—I emphasize the word some here, because scholars today believe that there were likely several “schools” of Pharisees and other Jewish religious groups—Pharisees and scribes over the interpretation and practice of Jewish religious traditions. This encounter reminds me of the following quote, ascribed to former Lutheran theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Or, to quote another Lutheran theologian, who addressed us at one of our Synod conventions, concerning the focus and identity of the church: “The main thing is to keep the main the main thing.”
It is true that we cannot live without traditions. Yet, there always remains the danger and temptation to carve traditions in stone; to value them too much as “sacred cows or bulls;” to allow them to reduce our focus only on the external value and performance of traditions.
In this gospel encounter, there’s one tradition, which I believe is all too easy to fall into when preaching on this pericope. I’m referring here to the temptation of “Pharisee and scribe bashing,” which, beneath it, may all-too-easily turn into a rather hostile anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Before I pursue this encounter of Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes further, I want to preface my remarks by reminding us all that, during the days of Jesus, there were likely many Jewish leaders and groups who held a similar view and approach to ritual, ceremonial rites and traditions as those of Jesus. The Jewish faith of Jesus’ day—just like the Judaism of today—was very vibrant and dynamic, with a great deal of diversity concerning matters of belief and practice. Therefore, when we approach our gospel today, it’s necessary for us to avoid any oversimplified stereotypes of the Pharisees and scribes.
As a faith tradition ages over time, one of the inevitable realities is that of change. In the faith of ancient Israel, there were devout people who observed the Ten Commandments and the Torah with love, wisdom and sincerity. However, as time passed, some of the traditions became out of focus by emphasizing the external rites, rituals and performance of them over and above the internal condition or motivation of a person. In some cases, the distorted focus on external traditions lost touch with the true faith on the inside, the faith in a person’s heart.
Around the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ, Jewish legal experts—known as the scribes in our gospel—built a fence around the original Torah and Ten Commandments consisting of endless rules and regulations addressing every possible life-situation. These legal experts had a field day with their focus on external details of rites and rituals. Unfortunately, when everything is spelled out in minute detail, there is a temptation to limit or straightjacket a tradition to the extent that there is no room for seeing, experiencing or practicing the tradition in diverse ways. What good is a tradition if it is reduced only to its externals, without the opportunity for an inner, heartfelt response to the tradition?
In today’s gospel, some Pharisees and scribes seem upset with how some of Jesus’ disciples failed to observe the ritual of hand washing before eating. According to William Barclay: “There were definite and rigid rules for the washing of hands. Note that this hand-washing was not in the interests of hygienic purity; it was ceremonial cleanness which was at stake. Before every meal, and between each of the courses, the hands had to be washed, and they had to be washed in a certain way.” The hand-washing ceremony is far too detailed to go into here; but suffice it to say that it was a lengthy, elaborate, ritualistic ceremony, which had to be done with precise accurateness in order to be “ceremonially clean.”
For Jesus, and for other devout Jews of his day, it made not an iota of difference in God’s eyes whether one externally performed such a ceremony. One might perform such external ceremonies every day throughout their lives, yet what good did it do if they were corrupt and evil on the inside? No matter how good the external ceremonies may be, they did not have the capacity to make a person good or righteous or clean. According to Jesus, it is what’s on the inside of the person that makes a person clean or unclean. He is concerned with the purity; the cleanness of our hearts, from the heart also comes the righteousness of our motives for our external actions. Centuries before Christ, the Psalmist also knew and practiced this truth when they prayed: “create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” We also know from reading the prophets like Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah, for example, that God was not pleased with empty external worship and sacrifices. Rather, according to the prophets “a broken spirit and a contrite heart” God will not despise. So in this encounter with some Pharisees and scribes, Jesus was harkening back to the authenticity of his own faith tradition.
In our faith traditions, we too need to protect our hearts and lives against placing too much emphasis on externals. To employ a personal example: I may lead our worship service perfectly, I may sing the liturgy perfectly, I may read the lessons perfectly, I may deliver the sermon perfectly, I may pray perfect prayers—but if my heart if filled with hatred, corruption and evil, none of this outward ritual and ceremony will do me one bit of good. To emphasize my point, the reverse is also true. If I hit all the wrong notes when I sing the liturgy, if I make mistakes when I read the lessons or when I preach the sermon or pray the prayers—but if my heart is right with God that is what really counts ultimately. (Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not suggesting that we deliberately botch our worship services in order to be right with God! I appreciate and enjoy good worship as much as anyone else! Rather, what I’m emphasizing here is that our hearts can be far from God even though we may place a great deal of attention on the externals of our worship).
Perfect worship, abiding by all of the rules and regulations meticulously, observing every minute detail externally are of absolutely no value or benefit to us if, on the inside we are corrupt, evil and unclean. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
So how do we have pure, righteous, clean hearts? How is this possible? Only with the grace and love of God! It comes through: confession and forgiveness, standing under the power and creativity of God’s word, participating in the sacraments, prayer, study and other activities of the church. It comes when we focus on the two great commandments of loving God and our neighbour. Rather than being overburdened by externals, may we find pure, internal freedom and strength from our traditions, thanks to God’s love and grace.
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