Clean Inside, Clean Outside

  • Mark 7:1-23
  • James 1:1-17

Once you’ve read a bit in the Gospels you realize that the Pharisees and scribes have it in for Jesus from day one. They are sneaking around in the background plotting on how they can ask him questions that trap him in the eyes of his disciples and make his ministry seem ridiculous. Jesus never fails to get them at their own game of rules and relation and indeed to turn the table and make them seem like the ones who are less than law abiding.

Here Jesus and his disciples are eating together, as they often do. And the Pharisees pounce. The disciples haven’t washed their hands. Now there are times when it is important to wash your hands – at camp after a rousing game in the meadow in the hot sun, yes, those kids need to wash their hands. And maybe the disciples were genuinely filthy, but Mark provides us with a comment to let us know that’s not what this is about. “For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly was their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders.” They wash their hands to make sure that if, in the course of their daily life they have come into contact with something that is unclean, they will be purified. And their clean hands represent the clean and pure heart that they present to God.

And Mark goes on, “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.” And well they should wash. When we lived in the middle east we washed things really well – especially fruits and veggies from the market. But it’s not bacteria and tape worm that the Pharisees are worried about. Nope – what if that tomato or orange was touch by a leper, a woman on he cycle, a Samaritan? All of these ritually unclean people would transfer their cooties to the person who used them. And the pots – just to make extra sure that no bit of dairy might come into contact with any bit of meat…

The traditions of the elders were concerned with putting a fence around the law. In the days since the laws of Leviticus and Exodus, tradition had gone even further, to make sure that the law wasn’t broken. For example, if the law is to keep the Sabbath holy, then we should not only not work, but prepare our meals the day before, not turn on the lights, not drive our cars – all to avoid any hint of work.

So when the Pharisees asked “why do your disciples not live by the tradition of the elders, and eat with defiled hands” Jesus is ready with his reply. He has seen that fence made of clean hands is no longer safeguarding clean hearts. He calls them hypocrites. “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Jesus uses an example that didn’t get read earlier. He might be exaggerating just a little, but he’s trying to make a point. He reminds them of the law to honour ones father and mother. And he reminds them of the tradition that is something is declared Corban, or holy and dedicated to God, then it was rendered off limits. Jesus says, you Pharisees support the person who comes to and says that they cannot support their ailing parents because their wealth has been declared Corban. You make the word of God void and meaningless.

The spotless teapots are filled with vanity and deceit and wickedness. And here they are calling the disciples unholy. This is a serious case of the pot calling the kettle black. There is nothing that by going inside a person can defile, it’s what it inside a person that makes them unclean and unholy. “For it is from within the human heart that evil intentions come.

Our other reading, from James, also talks about the difference between what is inside and what is outside. He expands on Jesus teaching, saying that good an holy intentions will be reflected by truly following God’s law – the law of justice that cares for the widow and the orphan and helps people who are distressed.

I’ve been trying to think about what it is in this cultural setting that makes us ‘unclean’ in the eyes of others or ourselves. What barriers have we erected in the name of holiness. For Jesus disciples and the Pharisees the issue was hand washing (and spending time with tax collectors and prostitutes, and picking grain on the Sabbath and many other infractions. It made me think of how AIDS was perceived 15 or 20 years ago – something you might be able to catch just from being in the same room as someone. Is it, for us, being too closely associated with a republican? A bit of a joke…although Joe pointed out a series of signs to me recently with sayings like “Republicans are a disease” and “Republicans: party of hate” – we particularly thought that one was being somewhat hypocritical.

Last Sunday we approved a motion to hire a Community Minister to be a part of our ministry team. This is something I’m really excited about being a part of. It is wonderful to be a part of a congregation that places priority for its ministry not only to congregation but to community. We are involved in myriad service professions, organizations, non-profits etc. In this way our professional hearts reflect our hands. I hope that putting a ‘professional’ care provider in charge of the community ministry doesn’t make us feel like it’s not our responsibility any more (I know I am in danger of feeling that way.) I sometimes wonder if the good intentions and involvements outweigh the one in whose name we do them. It is important that as we seek to do the work of Jesus in the world, we name our source.

It is also important to continue to make worship and renewal in Christ a priority as well. James says that looking at the law and then not following it is like someone who looks in a mirror and then immediately forgets what he or she looks like. In a way we follow the law but forget the mirror. Cosmetics magnate Esteé Lauder once said that “a good mirror is the most important accessory in a woman’s life.” She is right, but for the reason other than she thinks! All of us—women and men—need a good mirror that will help us see ourselves as we really are. James reminds us that there is only one mirror that shows forth our true reflection: the gospel of Jesus Christ. In that mirror, which James holds before us, we see who we are in the light of God’s love and what we are meant to be. It is in worship and the life of the gathered church that the intent and purpose of Christ are made clear to us – so that when we go away we are still holding the memory of Christ’s image.

Jesus is asking for transparency. He is asking for the inside to match the outside and for his followers to be neither the black kettle filled with clear intentions, nor the sparkling teapot filled with much and grime. He asks us to be clear and full and transparent and then nothing can make us unclean.