Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
We have a mixed relationship with holiness or purity. There are times when each of us want to get it right. But most of the time, we reject the call to purity as unnecessarily strict and fussy – especially when it is applied to us. But, at other times when we can apply the standard of purity to someone else, we wield purity like a weapon– especially against someone we want to show in a critical light.
I. How can we live out our faith in God? How do we make our faith real and know that our faith in God counts? Is real…
+when we keep God’s laws?
+when we have frequent bouts of warm feelings and warm hearts?
+when we are moved to tears of compassion at the sight of the sufferings of others?
+when we freely dig in our pockets for money to ease another’s way?
A. For the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, their faith was made real as they kept God’s law. At the heart of it, they did not keep the Law to be slavish or wooden about their faith. Because of their love of the Law, they were generous with the poor, honest in all their business dealings, workers in the Temple, and good to their families. They were scrupulous about keeping the Law out of the conviction that God had spoken through scripture; thus, to honor God they would keep all that God had commanded. At first presentation, this is an instinct that any of us would applaud. At their best, the Pharisees were convinced that such care in keeping God’s Law brought them closer to God.
I remember a Methodist preacher years ago, who summed up his faith in a similar way: “God said it; I believe it; and that settles it.” For that Methodist preacher, he believed that whenever he started qualifying and modifying God’s commandments and teachings, he was only going to take something away from them. He was only going to water them down. In his mind, he was, in the end, only going to dishonor God. And that was unthinkable for him. It was his greatest desire to honor God.
But, Jesus saw the hurtful side of the Pharisees’ focus on purity, too.
Impurity had social consequences: the categories of pure and impure were attached to individuals and groups. Impure individuals mentioned in the gospels include:
+the woman with a perpetual flow of blood.
+The prodigal son made himself impure by become a swineherd.
+Groups seen as impure included those possessed by demons;
+Samaritans were impure.
+Most likely, many of “the poor” were impure, because poverty made observance of rules of purity and purification very difficult (4).
In other words, the very people who stood in need of the mercy of God and their neighbors became the ones society was taught to shun as unworthy of mercy. Their impulse at its beginning was a good one, but in Jesus’ eyes it led the faithful to unfaithful lives.
B. Then, after the Cross and Jesus’ resurrection, Mark took this faith in Jesus to the Gentile lands beyond the borders of Israel. There the careful keeping of the Law in every area of life, which worked so naturally in Israel, stood out like the sore thumb it was. It was a particular problem for these new Christians in the area of food and eating. In Israel, people easily kept Laws about washing food and their hands; in Gentile lands, all this concern about what to eat and how to eat it, made Christians look awkward and foolish. So, Mark remembered this conflict from the life of Jesus and included it in the Gospel which he wrote. It may not have meant much when it happened during Jesus’ ministry, but in Mark’s young churches, this was necessary instruction on what Jesus considered most important.
C. In our own day, concern about purity has again become an important topic. I was going to say, “topic of conversation,” but that is not quite correct. Purity is an important topic, but it is such a sore subject that most of us don’t want to talk about it. What starts out as a conversation will likely end up in an uncomfortable debate convincing no one.
+Politicians and the talking-heads on TV play “gotcha politics” with their opponents by listening for a simple misstep or a word that can be lifted out of context.
+Someone who wants to talk with us about their particular brand of religion is generally received with groans and a search for the nearest exit rather than gladness and an invitation to say more.
+Much of our talk about social “values” is not concerned with sharing or understanding but only with determining who is with us or against us. We are certainly not interested in examining our values – just choosing up sides.
So, what does Jesus have to teach us about cultural, political and personal purity? The Good News is that Jesus has quite a lot to teach us about this, and what he has to teach us is woven through with grace.
II. Marcus Borg, in his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, explains this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees as the difference in the way they interpreted scripture. Both the Pharisees and Jesus loved the Scriptures because they considered them the Word of God which called them to holy living. The difference, according to Borg is that the Pharisees understood the way to holy living was through purity – keeping themselves *pure by keeping the Law* with heart and soul and mind and strength. Jesus, in contrast, understood the way to holy living was through compassion – looking at the lost, the poor, even the sinner with the loving heart of God. As Jesus said, “The greatest commandment is that we *love God* with heart and soul and mind and strength. Borg goes on to say:
The same hermeneutical struggle goes on in the church today. In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life. They draw their own sharp social boundaries between the righteous and sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking very earnestly to be faithful to Scriptures, end up emphasizing those parts of Scripture that Jesus himself challenged and opposed. An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity (1).
A. What does it mean to see the Bible through the lens of compassion?
[Def: Compassion] In the Bible, compassion is tied closely to mercy. Mercy brings to mind a beggar coming to ask what he/she has no right to ask of a great and wise king.
So, when we read the Bible or deal with the world through the lens of mercy, we act as God would:
+with feelings of sympathy and love which lead to helping actions;
+with the affection or yearning of a parent for a child;
+with the gift of simple forgiveness.
+with love, manifested in saving acts of grace.
To deal with the world through the lens of mercy is to see the sins, which the Bible clearly names, and understand God’s judgment on that sin – not as the end of God’s love for that sinner but -- as God’s call to repentance and return and restoration. Think about:
+Jesus’ teachings on divorce not as God’s final judgment on us but as God’s call to build a holy marriage.
+The Prodigal Son wrote his father off, BUT Jesus would have us focus on the loving Father who watched the road for the Son’s return.
+The elder son stood outside and pouted, but Jesus would have us focus on the Father’s willingness to go out to plead with him.
+Think about the Ten Commandments not as a list of rules you have surely broken but as God’s invitation to the best life you can live.
Too many of us read the Bible as evidence that God has surely given up on us. On the contrary, the Bible is evidence of God’s merciful love and guidance for us.
[ILLUS: PARDONED] I ran across a story of mercy wisely given. I don’t know if it is true; I can only hope it is.
Gordon MacDonald told the story of flying to Boston. He and his wife were seated almost at the back of the aircraft. As the plane loaded up, a woman with two small children came down the aisle to take the seat right in front of them. Behind her came another woman. The two women took the aisle and window seats on one side; one the children sat between them; the second child sat on her mother’s lap. Macdonald figures these were two mothers traveling with their children; He hoped the kids wouldn’t be noisy.
The flight started, and his prayer wasn’t answered. The two children had a hard time. The flight was turbulent; the children cried a lot; their ears hurt; and it was a miserable flight. He watched as the women kept trying to help and comfort these children,. The woman at the window played with the child in the middle seating, trying to keep her occupied and paying lots of attention.
He thought: these women get a medal for what they are doing. But things went downhill from there. As they got toward the last part of the flight, the child in the middle seat got sick. Pretty soon she was leaking from every part of her body. It was disgusting to look at; it smelled terrible; the kids were shrieking. And the two women were doing everything in their power to help their children.
When the plane landed, the flight attendant came up with paper towels and handed them to the woman in the window seat and said, “Here, Ma’am, these are for your little girl.”
The woman said, “This isn’t my little girl.”
“Aren’t you traveling together?”
“No,” she said. “I’ve never met this woman and these children before this flight.”
Suddenly MacDonald realized that this woman had just been merciful. A lot of us would have just died in this circumstance or demanded a new seat to get away. She chose to give mercy. She was, in the words of Christ, “the person who was the neighbor.”
1. Borg, Marcus. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 59.
2. Sproul, R.C. The Holiness of God, Tyndale Press, Wheaton, IL as quoted by Patricia Datchuk Sanchez, “The hard and challenging work of Holiness,” Celebration 29 (9), p. 402.
4. Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity, p. 215.
5. Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I, lines 186-197.