CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Called to Be Partners
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 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.” 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.”
- Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In his book, God Has a Dream, Desmond Tutu points out how both Torah and Gospel teaching share a word about how we work together with God. Tutu reminds us that “God calls on us to be [God’s] partners to work for a new kind of society where people count; where people matter more than things, more than possessions; where human life [in the fullness of our vast diversity] is not just respected but positively revered.” Tutu imagines a world where peace, gentleness and compassion will be the norm – what Tutu, and what Jesus, would call the Kingdom of God.
In fact, not only does Tutu believe how we treat one another must be based on our understanding that every single human being is created in God’s image, but Tutu also believes that to treat anyone as less than the image of God is positively blasphemous. That’s an image we might bear in mind whenever we debate one another on the issues of the day.
All this brings us to the whole debate in Mark’s Gospel about ritual purity, human traditions and the Torah. Listening to today’s Gospel lesson we can pick up on the tension in the exchange between Jesus and the visiting Pharisees and Scribes. Perhaps some sense of sarcasm comes across in the translation as well. Mark is writing in the midst of a Roman-Jewish war which will lead to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, and the author is most likely transferring much of his day into the stories of Jesus’ arguments with the religious authorities of Jesus’ day. The disagreement in chapter seven of Mark is as much about the tensions in his day between Jesus followers (both Jewish and Gentile) and those Jewish leaders who do not follow Jesus as it was about the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees – perhaps even more so.
How in the world do we find the ability to honor the image of God in one another when we have different ways of interpreting and living out ancient teachings or customs? “Your disciples refuse to wash their hands!” say the Pharisees. And then Mark references the laws concerned about the washing of pots and cups and kettles. Jesus fires back that his detractors care more about what goes into people’s mouths than what comes out. Nothing about Mark’s opening narration, the Pharisees’ challenges or the quick, shaming, rebuke of Jesus seem to have anything to do with honoring the image of God in each other.
It is important to note laws and customs like those dealing with purification rites were very important to the life of Israel – especially back when the nation was in exile, and even in Jesus’ day while under Roman occupation – but those rites didn’t carry the moral implications of decrees like the Ten Commandments. The rules we read about in today’s Gospel lesson helped keep Israel from becoming culturally assimilated by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians and now by the Romans. They were a way of reminding one another that they were God’s people – loved and cared for by God and called to be a light to the nations.
However, there have always been instances when adherence to faith seems to have more to do with drawing lines in the sand to differentiate between one group and another rather than embracing both the teachings of Torah and the teachings of the Gospels to love God and love one’s neighbor. For thousands of years people of faith have used strict adherence to rules to prove who is more holy, who is more righteous, who is closer to God or who bears the true image of God.
But Jesus, like the Torah teachings of Judaism, will have nothing to do with drawing lines in the sand in an attempt to discount or exclude the other. “It’s not what one puts in one’s mouth that defiles a person – it’s what comes out of the mouth; it’s what we say about one another; it’s how we treat one another – that matters.”
The key commandments of Torah – which Jesus holds as absolute imperatives – are not about when to wash one’s hands or how to prepare one’s food, nor are they about cups and kettles; they are not about whether we stand or kneel to pray, bow or cross ourselves at the right time, or support the right candidates based on their expressing the proper policies or the right faith. The commandments of Torah and the precepts of the Gospels are about people and about how we choose to honor the image of God in one another. As God’s beloved partners, how do we reflect the love God has for each of us?
The Rev. Dr. Jim Melnyk is the ecumenical and interfaith officer for the Diocese of North Carolina.
 Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream, Doubleday, 2004, 62
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