Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 7:1-23 The Tradition of the Elders
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 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.’
As I read this week’s scripture about food and traditions, I remembered another story that I read once. I don’t know if it is a story that actually happened in somebody’s family or just a good story that seems true, but, I think it’s worth telling. I read it first in Reader’s Digest. More recently, I’ve found a version of the story shared by a writer named Madora Kibbe. You may have heard this story before, too. The story begins with a child watching their mother cook a roast for dinner. This family seems to be one where the moms have the responsibility doing the big cooking and passing along recipes. The child sees their mom cutting off the ends of the pot roast before putting it in the pot and putting it in the oven. The child asks their mom why she is cutting the ends off the pot roast. The mother, "I don't know why I cut the ends off, but it’s what my mom always did. Why don't you ask your Grandma?"
So, the inquisitive kid called their grandmother. They said, “Granny, mom is making a pot roast and cutting off the ends. She said she is cutting off the ends because that’s what you did when you made one. Why do you cut the ends off the pot roast before cooking it?" Her granny replied, "I don't know. That's just the way my mom always cooked it. Why don't you call your great-grandmother and ask her why she did it?" What a gift this child had having so many generations of family still living! The child then called their great-grandmother.
Great Grandmother answered her phone on the seventh ring (it was on the other side of the room and she had to get to it). The beloved great-grandchild asked her the question. "Mom is making a pot roast and cut the two ends off before putting it in the oven. She doesn’t know why. She said she learned it from granny. And, Granny said she didn’t know why she did it either. She just learned to do it from you and you were a very good cook, so she just did what you did. So, why did you cut the ends off the pot roast before cooking it? Great-grandmother said, "When I was first married, we had a very small oven, too small for a standard pot roast. If I wanted to make one, I had to cut the ends off to make it fit.”
This activity, cutting the ends of the pot roast, began out of necessity. You can’t cook a roast in your oven if it’s bigger than the oven. It ended up becoming a practice that some people thought was necessary in order to cook well. Then, it became a tradition that one passes on to the next generation. How many traditions in our lives began out of practices passed along with no sense of their root, rhyme, or reason? How often do we do a thing mostly because it is because it’s how we learned to do the thing, not because we actually need to do it that way and only that way? These kinds of actions, traditions passed along and strictly adhered to, unexamined for their relevance to the present moment, are the target of Jesus’ critique in our reading for the day. Jesus wasn’t against tradition, especially religious traditions. What he was against was following the letter of law, and even making more restrictive rules around it, and ignoring the Spirit of the Law God gave the Jewish people.
The tradition that is at the center of the conflict between the Pharisees, scribes, and Jesus is related to questions of ritual purity. The first few verses in the translation we are reading make it sound like it’s just about washing their hands... like their hands are muddy or dirty. But, that’s not what this is about. That word translated as “defiled” shows us that is a question about eating after having done a certain kind of religious ritual. Scholars I read this week indicate that the practices around ritual purity, that is the practices around ritually purifying hands, foods, pots, and pans, were traditions developed around the core of the Law that God gave Moses, like a level of padding around the initial commandments. You don’t want to go against the commandments. So, we will add and add and add practices to our community just to try to cover every part of our lives, doing the best we can to make sure all we do is in accordance with God’s Law.
Dr. Elizabeth Shively, in her commentary on this passage, also noted that the elders saw these purity rituals as a way that their people set themselves apart for their God, preserving both their covenant with God and their particular culture in the midst of the Roman Empire that would happily destroy them. We are being generous interpreters when we acknowledge that these traditions developed out of both a deep faith and important necessity. To be fair, these traditions were not exactly as low stakes as cutting ends of your pot roast just because your mother did. But there is some similarity to the trajectory of a practice becoming a tradition that got passed along in a community. But, in this case, we have Jesus, who felt as though he had the authority to state that those traditions were made by humans, and not by God. And, according to scholar Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Jesus understood that every other teaching offered by the prophets and the community were interpretations that could be interrogated and, maybe even discarded if they were not sufficiently adherent to Love of God and Love of Neighbor, the heart of the Law.
In today’s reading, Jesus uses somewhat of a crude analogy about eating and what happens to food once it has been eaten to make a point about how one can evaluate their actions to see if they are aligned with love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus said that the things you touch and eat are probably not what separate you from the covenant with God. That’s what impurity means here: Separating yourself from the calls to love and justice that are the people’s responsibilities in the covenant with God. It is not the things that go in your body or touch your body that draw you away from God. Instead, it is that which emanates out of you... your slanderous words, your unkind acts, your lies, and your bigotry, that draw you away from God. Most people Jesus knew weren’t able to consistently maintain ritual purity. But, all people could turn their hearts towards God and act out of love of neighbor.
In my world, “coming out” is a good thing. Coming out is a phrase that signifies a knowledge of self and clarity about one’s identity, community, desire and love. When we come out, we say clearly something deeply true about ourselves, reflecting our values into the broader world, though this truth telling is not without risk. I thought about this as I read Jesus’ teaching about the things we take in from the world and the things that come out from us. The goal of our faith is to have what comes out of us be an expression of the knowledge that we, ourselves, are beloved by God through creation and welcomed into a community of faith through our baptism. We best express, then, our desire to follow Jesus when we re-examine our traditions and see if they are actually meeting the demands of love and justice present in that very moment. If they aren’t, Jesus is telling us that we don’t prioritize maintaining those traditions over loving our neighbor. Or, put this way, we don’t just keep cutting the ends off the pot roast. We find a new recipe... one that allows us to cook something good using the full size of the oven that is at our disposal. It is a risk to examine our traditions. We may find ourselves at odds with what our elders have taught us. Jesus sure did. But, Jesus argues that the risk is worth it because it can bring us closer to God and to each other. I pray that this Lent can be a time examining the faith that is coming out of us and of cooking the full roast when necessary.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.