notre dame montreal

Clean and unclean hearts

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
31st August 2003

Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden

August 31 2003  Ordinary 22 Year B


Mark 7 (1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the market place they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with `unclean' hands?"  He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "`These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'

 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." 

 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him `unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him `unclean.' "

For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man `unclean.'"


 This episode from Mark takes place at a time when Jesus is doing amazing things. He has fed the five thousand (6:30-44), healed the sick in Gennesaret (6:53-56), he is literally walking on water ! (6:45-52).  The concluding verse of chapter 6 reads, "And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed" (6:56).  The Pharisees however are not impressed. Whilst they see compelling evidence of Jesus' power to do good, they focus instead on the failure of his disciples to observe their traditions. They ignore the inbreaking of God's power, and focus on trivial concerns. Mark has already told us that the scribes have determined that Jesus is demonic (3:22), and the Pharisees have begun a conspiracy to kill him (3:6).  So they leave Jerusalem and follow Jesus in Galilee as they seek to kill him.

It is important to try and understand the Pharisees. They were not actually bad people, they were dedicated to obeying and pleasing God. The Jews in the middle east had for centuries been surrounded and infiltrated by paganism, it therefore became very important to reinforce the purity codes which used cultural symbols to say ‘We are Jews!’ 

Understandably, any group, culture or society which felt threatened about its identity would impose boundaries more strongly and purity codes were reinforced to distinguish the group. The Maccabean martyrs were famous at the time for having died rather than defile themselves, they were Jewish people who had been tortured and killed for refusing to eat unclean food, particularly pork. The Pharisees wanted to maintain their loyalty to God and his laws. The Pharisees were misguided, but let us not forget that they were deeply religious men trying to be obedient to God's law. 

However, Jesus is showing that these laws pointed towards him and now that he has arrived they are redundant. God’s people had historically been defined within the racial boundaries of the Jewish people, Jesus was now calling all people and this included the Gentiles whom the Jews had sought to be so distinct from. This meant that not only were all the distinctive Jewish practices redundant, they were a hindrance and Jesus had to show that they no longer had to be obeyed. Jesus saw his ministry as answering the sin in every human heart, not just Jewish hearts.

In conducting this attack upon Jewishness, Jesus was touching upon very difficult and sensitive territory. Jesus criticises ritual washing of hands before food, and of cooking vessels. These practices were part of a highly complex and developed system of ‘man made’ purity laws. Exod. 30:18-21; 40:31 requires the cleansing of hands, but only for priests ("Aaron and his sons") -- and only when they go into the tent of meeting or come near the altar -- in other words, when they are attending to sacred duties within sacred space.  For the Sadducees the written law of the Torah alone was authoritative The Pharisees, out of a desire to obey God, established these rules to clarify the law, and they accepted the evolving oral law as equally authoritative. 

Ritual washing has nothing to do with hygiene, Pharisaic handwashing involves the use of only a small amount of water poured over the hands to wash away ritual defilement, such as defilement caused by touching an unclean object or person (i.e., a bodily discharge such as spittle or semen, a dead body, a leper, a menstruating woman, or a Gentile).  While most of us would want to wash our hands for hygienic purposes in some of these circumstances, the manner in which ritual handwashing is done offers no hygienic benefit.  Lev. 11-15 gives provisions for the cleansing of various types of vessels for the same ritualistic reasons.

By Jesus' day, adherence to the unwritten oral tradition was as important for the Pharisees as was adherence to the Torah itself, by the third century it will be codified as the Mishnah.

So it was that the Pharisees gradually adopted this practice of ritual handwashing for ordinary people and ordinary meals as a way of showing devotion to God -- and as a "boundary marker," a way for Jews to proclaim their identity as distinct from their pagan neighbours.

Jesus attacks this ritual cleansing which was human tradition, but he goes further, he also overrules the food laws. These were not mere human tradition, but the scriptures themselves. No wonder the Pharisees were angry and quite understandably any good Jew would have been.

Erradicating Jewish distinctive practices such as kosher food and circumcision, was going to be very painful for the early Christians. Jesus declared all foods clean but it took the early church a long time to come to terms with it. The controversies in the early church regarding the observance of food laws and circumcision make it clear how hard it was to come to terms with (see Acts 11:1-9; 15:1-29; Gal 2:11-14). 

It also understandably brought Jesus into violent confrontation with these Pharisees who sought to be faithful Jews. The Pharisees want to attack Jesus and show that he is outside the cherished tradition which has been passed on to define the true people of God. The response of Jesus is to draw upon the words of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus quotes scripture, adding force to his accusations. The quotation is from Isaiah 29:13, and is in keeping with other prophetic pronouncements (see Isaiah 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-24; and Micah 6:6-8).  What God wants is conversion of the heart, not mere words and traditions.   


So in what way is the new religion of Jesus different from the old?

"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" (vv. 14-15).  

Jesus shows that it is not the foods that we eat or ritual defilement that makes us unclean, but the thoughts and feelings of our hearts.  Jesus is unconcerned with the old categories of clean and unclean, he touched a leper (1:41), ate with sinners (2:15-17), and was not troubled that an unclean woman touched him (5:30-34). Jesus replaces God's old commandments with his own teaching, in effect, doing the same thing that he accuses the Pharisees of doing. The difference was that Jesus is entrusted by God to declare his commandments directly. Jesus is not worried about eating pork, but he is angered by sins which come from within us, from the human heart. This is what he says really defiles a person.

  1. Fornication
  2. Theft
  3. Murder
  4. Adultery
  5. Avarice
  6. Wickedness
  7. Deceit
  8. Licentiousness
  9. Envy
  10. Slander
  11. Pride
  12. Folly

Jesus changes the emphasis away from religious duties towards ethical behaviour. He teaches us to be especially mindful of thoughts and feelings that give rise to unethical behaviour in our relationships with family, friends and neighbours.  It is those thoughts and feelings, conceived and nurtured in our hearts, that give rise to truly serious sins. What Jesus is saying is that he is offering a cure for the problems of the heart and not just Jewish ones.



Consider our religious traditions

The Pharisees were devoted religious people, yet it was for these people that Jesus had his most vicious criticism. We have to be so careful to make sure that we do not make the same mistakes.  The tendency that Jesus criticizes in the Pharisees and scribes appears in most religious groups.  People come to hold on to merely human traditions as if they were divinely revealed

So how do we feel about our traditions? Perhaps no sermon on this passage should ignore the challenge to traditions   -

The things which we think are so important which in God’s great scheme of thing are ridiculous.

Our religious traditions, which imagine that God prefers our music, our hymns, our liturgies, our organisations and our ways of doing things. The passage today is a caution to us not to allow these things to get in the way of our serving Christ and following him.

Consider our hearts

But as we can see, the lesson today is not just about Jesus being critical of tradition, Jesus is critical of anything, including the Old Testament Laws, which prevented people from surrendering their hearts to him.

The world has never been an easy place in which to live out the Christian faith. The Christian is in a minority and is surrounded by people who will not be seeking to be obedient to the very strict and demanding lifestyle which Jesus proposes. Our moral codes are not going to coincide with many of the people that we meet and our proposals for the lives of ourselves and our families, our children, our going to be out of step with many of the major influences which are exerted upon us and them

So we need to ask ourselves to what extent we are prepared to allow ourselves to be challenged by that dreadful list of sins which Jesus gave. It is no use pretending that the world is divided into good people and bad people, we all have hearts which produce bad things. So we need to be mindful and cultivate good lives which show our Christian faith.

What do people say about us? Are we trustworthy people, are we reliable. We might not be murderers but do we behave wickedly towards others. Jesus clearly considered that Christians should have hearts which produced kindness and consideration for others.

We might not commit adultery, but can we be trusted to behave properly and be faithful to our partners. Jesus behaved himself with women and did not give cause for scandal.

Are we people who use every opportunity to create wealth or possessions for ourselves, or do we go out of our way to think of those who we can help. Jesus came to bring about this change of heart, that is how we measure true religion.


Additional notes


Verses 9-13:  CORBAN


The fact that these verses are not included in the lectionary reading need not prohibit us from mentioning them.  In these verses, Jesus shows how his accusers -- apparently devout men -- use human tradition to sidestep one of the Ten Commandments -- "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Exod. 20:12).  This commandment means, among other things, providing financial support to aging parents.  In Jesus' day, aging parents often transferred property to their children, who then assumed a responsibility for the parents' welfare in their old age. 


Corban is a form of deferred giving, similar to today's tax-avoidance scheme of transferring title to a charity now (and receiving a tax deduction now) with the provision that we can continue to use the property until our death.  In like manner, a person in Jesus' day could declare something Corban -- dedicated to God -- and then tell his or her parents that their old-age support has been given to God.  In truth, the property has only been promised to God, but that promise gives the child an excuse to dodge his or her obligation to parents.  "A man goes through the formality of vowing something to God, not that he may give it to God, but in order to prevent some other person from having it" (T. W. Mansori, quoted in Edwards, 210).  It is treachery cloaked in religious garb.  The religious establishment encourages the practice, because the deferred gift ultimately ends up in the religious treasury.










Bible Readings and Notes and Intercessions for Trinity Sunday, 15th June 2003

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