By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 8:27–38 (NRSV) 
Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
(Mt 16:13–20; Lk 9:18–20)
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
(Mt 16:21–28; Lk 9:21–27)
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
What do people say about you? I know that we try to not worry about these sorts of things, but we should be honest we really do care. At times it is important to know what some people think of you. I recently had a job interview, and that is one area where I really want to know what people say about me. I have even asked for people to freely tell me about myself, not because I am vain, but I want and need to know if I am fulfilling the expectations that people have of me.
Jesus is not a vain person, he is very humble. In this case humility is being honest about yourself. But Jesus also has a problem. You might not be able to see it, but Jesus has a problem. His disciples and everyone else, have some expectations about who or what they want him to be. The Hebrew people had been waiting and studying about their coming Messiah for centuries, if you were to ask them a question they could quote scripture describing this anointed one that was to come. And each group had their favorite description. The problem is that they were interpreting these things through the lenses of their culture. They were reading those prophecies, reflecting on them, and considering them not in the context that they were given but in their own. Everything was through Israel, and for Israel. What happens when Israel is now longer an independent nation? Well then, the prophecy in their mind must mean that the coming king will reestablish the nation, so the expectation takes on a different form.
We all do these things. In our quest to know God in a deeper more meaningful way, we consume scripture. This is not bad, I will encourage you to read as much scripture as you possibly can, because it will provide you with hope and give you a different perspective on life. But this quest to know God without discipline can cause us to neglect certain things. The main thing being that these words were first written to a culture that was different than ours. There are similarities and there are things we can learn from them, but first century Israel is vastly different then 21 century America. It is vastly different than 21 century Israel even. Paul wrote letters to churches in Corinth, Philippi, Rome, and Colossi each of those cultures had strengths and weaknesses that were similar and different than all the other churches around them. The letters were shared and read at each of the churches, but the cultures within and around those churches were very different. They each had different challenges to face.
We often approach scripture, and we want it to do things that it was not written to do. Scripture is a collection of books, written for different reason, using different styles and forms. We often want it to be the rule book, a science book, or a history book and those things are there, but often they are written in a form that does not translate into language of today. Scripture is a collection of books of teaching, it is often a conversation between a mentor and their protégé. It is more often stories encouraging us to become more aware of our surroundings than concrete hard facts. Even the gospel writers tell us the could not possibly write about everything Jesus taught or did. Scripture writers used poetry, parable, narrative, and several other styles to express truth.
Why am I saying this? Because when we approach scripture as science, we are approaching it through a culture that did not exist at the time of its writing. The scientific method as we know it, was not yet developed. If it was not developed they could not express truth in a scientific manner, instead they penned their observations and experiences in poetry because it amazed them and that was the best way for them to express it. When we approach scripture as we read a history textbook, we are applying things to scripture that were never intended because the study of history in our current era was not how ancient writers approached the subject. If you were to look at the writing of the ancient Egyptians you would find that their leaders were always amazing, they always won wars, and they never faced hard times. Of course, if you were to look at the history of Babylon or one of the other empires of ancient days we would learn that at times Egypt was defeated and at times they faced famines. The same can be said about the history in scripture, it does not tell everything, there are many things that are left out of the narrative. But the truth is there, because the writers wrote in such manner that they wanted us to learn from the stories of both the good and the bad. This past Wednesday we discussed Samson and his trouble with women and the Philistines. We discussed just a small portion of his life, we do not even know how old Samson was, but we do learn something from the story.
We have trouble at times separating our cultural perspective from scripture. And when we do this we might have trouble seeing the truth as it is. But we are in good company, even the disciples had this struggle. Who do people say that I am, Jesus asks. They list off names of people. And then He asks who do you say I am? They respond by saying you are the messiah.
Jesus then begins to teach them about what this means. He tells them that he will face a trial, that he will suffer at the hands of the elders or the leaders of the faith. He tells them that he will be killed and that he will rise again. He tells them plainly. And Peter rebukes Jesus. A rebuke is not just a little thing, it is basically a curse, it is a demand for destruction. It is the same word and feeling that is used to describe what is done when to the demons that possess individuals. Peter rebukes Jesus. He is saying stop right there Jesus. We just called you the messiah, the messiah will not be killed, the messiah will not be opposed by the elders, the messiah is the messiah. You will unite the tribes of Israel and crush our enemies under your foot. That is what the messiah will do, so stop with this dying talk.
You see, Peter and the other disciples, were reading scripture through the eyes of their culture. They were building their faith on the teachings and the interpretations of the elders that were more about wishful thinking than reality. Just like the various teachings of dogma in many religious groups, they are teachings of interpretation. Many are very good things to live by, but we must be careful not to put too much emphasis on them. The elders are human. They like each of us can at times have difficulty with scripture. They like all of us may not always take into consideration every possible factor surrounding the writing. They might take a poem and read it as a history, when the writer was speaking not about actual events but the emotions the events were inspiring.
Jesus looks at Peter and the others and he says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Think about that response for a moment. Peter had rebuked Jesus. He rebuked him because of his great love for Jesus, he rebuked him because of his great love for his nation, for Israel. Peter rebuked Jesus out of devotion. But what was his devotion to? Was it to God, or man? Was it to faith or the institution of human interpretations of faith?
Jesus then calls the crowds to join the disciples. He realizes that there is something that everyone who wants to follow his teachings is missing. His closest friends have an idea about who he is that is not accurate, and if his closest followers do not understand then neither do the others. He calls them to gather and he teaches them what it means to be a true follower, a true disciple.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He begins. I want us to sit with this for a moment, sit with it while we still reflect on the response that he gave to Peter. If you want to be a follower of Jesus, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow him. This is not just a little statement. He is saying that no matter what is going on, no matter where you are, no matter what the situation is my followers will find themselves on the side of the minority. They will find themselves opposed to authority because the power of the worldly kingdoms are focused on different things than God. The world systems, no matter what they are do not deny self. Every system of the world is dedicated to fulfilling the desires of a self. That self might be the king or ruling class, or it might be the people, but every worldly system is focused on a form of self. Jesus says if you want to follow me deny yourself.
To deny oneself is a change of perspective. It does not necessarily mean that you give everything away and live as an impoverished monk, but it means that your focus is on those outside yourself. Your work and your life are dedicated to making the community around you reflect the one you follow. If you own a business, you run that business in such a way that those that work for you or partake of your services will see a glimpse of Christ. If you happen to earn a profit, you invest that profit into expanding the kingdom of God. You do that by expanding your business, giving raises, hiring more employees, becoming more efficient, giving toward community improvements or any other way you are led. Because if you own a business your business is your vocation and ministry. It is not a sin to profit in business, but it can be sinful if your only focus is yourself at the expense of others. But most of us do not own businesses. Most of us work for others so how can we focus on others? You serve as if you are serving the Lord, is what scripture teaches. When you work you work as if that box of cereal is the very manna from heaven. You place it on a shelf as if it is filled with divine power. When you are asked to do something you do it, and you do it not just for selfish recognition, but to make the one you are serving look good. And if you are the manager you manage in a way to make those you manage look good. And to those you provide the precious goods for, you make sure you present only the best because it is not about yourself but about them. Even in retirement you do not stop. You continue to live for others. You invest your time and your resources to continue to improve those around you. You read to children, you volunteer when you have the energy, you visit and listen to those around, you make space for others.
The idea of living for others is not to difficult to see. And we know that when we live that out in our lives it often comes back as a blessing to us as well. When we work hard we gain more opportunities to serve more and often that leads to profits that can allow us the ability to do even more. The problem with self-denial is we often forget that we must take care of ourselves, so we can care for others. We can give so much that we burn out. We can work so hard that we make ourselves sick, so we cannot forget about ourselves, we simply must be honest with ourselves.
The part of Jesus’ teaching that often causes us to faulter is the taking up the cross. Jesus used this phrase for a specific reason. The cross is a powerful symbol. It was the symbol of oppression, of authoritarianism, it is a symbol of death for all that oppose the desires of those that have power. To take up a cross is not simply carrying a piece of wood, it is being forced to carry a piece of wood as punishment. To take up a cross is to stand in opposition to oppression and to stand for justice. For a follower of Christ to take up a cross is to literally oppose Rome, but not for the sake of Israel but for the Gospel.
Often, we hear this verse quoted as a cliché, “this is a cross I must bear.” When all that means is we do not want to change the way, things are, and we will live with it. That is not what Jesus is talking about. To take up the cross means we see something that is wrong, and we will not stand for it. We will sacrifice everything we have to bring about change. We will oppose an injustice even if it means those in power will demand our life as payment. The cross we bear is the ministry we have. It is that thing in our community that we just cannot let continue, so we change it. Just down the road from here is a community that has tiny houses built for homeless veterans. Why is it there? Because someone, could not stand to live in a city where people who served their country would be allowed to sleep on the streets. Did they have to do this? No. They gave their time and their labor to correct an injustice they observed. Those involved carried a cross.
There are injustices all around us. And they should break our hearts. Jesus is telling us if you want to be a follower you must deny yourself and take up a cross. You must be aware of others not only yourself. You must be aware of situations within your community. You must be able to see through the surface into the deeper things. And you must say this cannot stand. I can list of several things in our community that we should not let stand. Our education systems are failing our children, what are you going to do? We have veterans sleeping in the streets, what will you do? We have people living in abusive relationships, will we just let them happen or speak up? We have people whose lives are exploited for the pleasures of others, can this be allowed? We could continue to make a list of the countless injustices in our community. We could spend the rest of this day listing them off, and when we stop and drive home we could continue to add things. Each one of them is a cross, a cross that someone should bear. But which one is the one that you cannot let stand? Which will cause you to say, No More!
I am not saying that we each must become what certain media outlets call social justice warriors. But what I am saying is that that is ministry. Jesus looked out on the crowds one day seeing a multitude of people and he had compassion for them, and he feed them. Jesus saw all those people coming to him seeking many forms of healing and he had compassion for them and he healed their various diseases. What moves us to that degree? What causes our hearts to ache to the point we must act? That is our ministry, that is the cross we bear. And if we refuse to take it up, we are rejecting Christ.
We began today with Jesus asking the disciples what people were saying about Him, and who they said he was. He then spoke about what that really meant, causing the followers to rebuke him. Jesus endured that rebuke because he had compassion. Jesus came down from Heaven to be born of Mary, he being God became human for us. He lived among humankind enduring the entire spectrum of life: the preborn, an infant, toddler, adolescent, and adult. He lived, he taught, and he had compassion for us because we were like sheep without a shepherd. He showed us how to live a life with God, and he lived that perfect life for us, with us. And he expressed his greatest compassion when while we were still enemies of God, he took up the cross and died for us. He took on our sin and our shame, he took our life on his own shoulders and provided the way of redemption. He died and was buried, then he rose on the third day just as he said he would. He had compassion for us. He gave it all for us. And he said if you want to be my follower, you must deny yourself and take up the cross and follow me.
This is more than just saying words, it is changing your life. It is more than just giving to a charity or the church, it is getting involved. It is more than becoming a member it is giving your life totally to change the community we live into the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Will you follow and get your hands dirty?
By: Jared A Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 7:24–37 (NRSV) 
The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus Cures a Deaf Man
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Last week, we had an unforeseen incident in our family, and I was unable to share my sermon personally. I do want to thank Marc for sharing it with you all and I hope that what was needed to be heard was heard. The main point of that sermon is that at times those of us who are religious can get caught up in our dogma. We can get hung up on the things we believe to be true, and at times we can neglect the why behind those rules. Often people can develop a legalistic fervor that can become judgmental of those that believe or practice faith contrary to those of their religious order. When this occurs, we become focus on performance, doing the proper things at the proper times, instead of living an authentic life of faith.
There is nothing wrong with these rules and doctrines. Most, if not all, have very beneficial spiritual and social applications behind the various teachings. Why do we practice our faith in certain ways? If you have not thought of this, if you cannot provide and answer to that question we might be leading a life of legalism instead of faith. We can very soon become known for the practices we participate in instead of being known for our faith itself. This has been a problem with religion from the dawn of time. Each group even among the pagan religions were known for their practices. The interesting thing is that most of the things we remember are not the core theological beliefs of our faith, but the oddities of it. Quakers do not practice communion and baptism like everyone else. Quakers are quiet. Baptists immerse and do not dance or drink alcohol. Episcopalians well they are merely Catholic light, and Catholics they… That is just within the practices among Christian groups, what about other religions? What do we know about Islam, Buddhism, or Zoroastrianism? If we were to look at our knowledge of other beliefs we usually compare them to our own, how similar are they to us, then we judge them accordingly. There are some things that are essential, for instance the belief that Jesus is central to salvation but what happens if those essentials are similar? We begin to look at those other things, and often those other things are not divinely inspired laws but are human interpretations of scriptures. For each of these rules religious orders have there is an equally scripture backed rule stating the exact opposite. How is it that one group can promote temperance and another moderation both use the same scripture to prove their points?
This is the situation that Jesus was found in last week. The pharisees were questioning Jesus about a rule they promoted about washing before eating. This rule can be supported by scripture, but only if we twist it a bit to include all people under the rules of a priest. Like I said earlier, it is not always a bad thing, but it is a religious interpretation of mankind not a divine order. Jesus held them accountable for this. Saying that it is not what goes into the body that causes corruption but what comes out. The various sins against mankind and God, come from within. It is our hearts that cause us to act certain ways. That is the why behind the what.
This week we meet Jesus as he travels north, out of Israel. He goes into the ancient region of Syria, part of which we know as Lebanon, to the city of Tyre. This city has a long history and relation to Israel. At times this nation had a partnership with Israel. During the era of David and Solomon, Israel and Lebanon were trading partners. It was from this area that the great timbers for construction were purchased. But at other times this region was the enemy. The city of Tyre was founded by Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were a seafaring culture that traded with civilizations all around the Mediterranean Sea. Scholars are not sure where they originated because they seem to be a culture that is similar yet distinct from the others. They are often depicted as wearing kilt type garments which would lead some to believe that they might be Gaelic in heritage, yet their tools and pottery also resemble that of the Greeks. Most likely they were a melting pot type of culture. They moved into an area established a trading post or city and integrated to the surroundings. When troubles came they fought ferociously but were also willing to live at peace.
Tyre, was part of the history of Israel for most of its existence. They were both friend and foe. They were at war and at peace. They were influenced and influential. Tyre both help Israel and contributed to their downfall. Like Israel Tyre was a desired piece of real-estate for the competing Empires. This island city was home of two harbors, making it a prominent city of trade. They were most known for purple dye, this is one of the greatest commodities that the Phoenicians dealt. But like Israel this city was once laid to waste. Alexander the Great in his conquest of Persia, filled the channel between the mainland and the island with dirt and walked across to conquer it. This was such a massive undertaking that even today, Tyre is not an island because it is still connected by this massive causeway first constructed by Alexander, although it has been expanded a great deal since. Like Israel, Tyre was conquered and reemerged to retake its former place.
Tyre, was and remains a land outside Israel. Yet Jesus traveled to this city. Jesus made a point to go out of Israel to meet with those in a city of Gentiles. I want us to think of this considering what was discussed last week. Another manmade rule that was held by the Pharisees was that you could not eat with sinners. This is contrary to the laws of Moses which tells them to treat the alien with the same hospitality as their countrymen. The reason they would not eat with the gentiles was because they did not follow that same rules and traditions as Israel. They ate unclean things, they did not follow the same customs. If they were to eat with these unclean people, the religious Pharisee might become corrupt as well. Yet Jesus made a point to visit this city, not only did he visit but he went into the home of one of its citizens.
While in that city, Jesus was met by a woman. We know her as a Syrophoenician, Gentile, or a Canaanite woman depending on which Gospel account we are reading. What this means is that she was a native of the land. She was both Syrian and Phoenician, she was a Gentile and of the tribes that inhabited the lands prior to the conquest of Israel. She was in every way outside of God’s promise as we could get. And to top it off, she was a woman. In any of the ancient cultures she did not poses the social clout to be speaking with a Jewish Rabbi. This did not stop her. Her daughter was being held in bondage and she had faith that Jesus could free her from this shadow of evil.
It is important to keep this portion of scripture in context with the conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees last week, because it will give us some understanding of Jesus’s response to her. She approaches Jesus in this house and begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus responds to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This statement is very derogatory. Jesus was using the common vernacular about people outside of Israel, referring to this woman as a dog. She knew full well what Jesus was saying. He was telling her that His mission and ministry was first to his own nation. He is their messiah, he is their prophesied king, he did not come to minister to the outsiders. This does not mean that because we are not Jewish, we do not have access to Jesus. What it means is that the revelation of God comes first through the Jews. It was their nation that God chose to reveal himself to the world through. This is the only reason they are honored among the nations of the world. It is not because they are special in and of themselves, it is only that God chose them to show himself to the world. But like the manmade rules of the Pharisees, Israel often forgets their place among mankind. They are set apart not because they are greater, but they are to be the light to the nations. They are to live a life in ministry to the nations. Because of this role, they are often taken advantage of, but when they live according to the ways of God, they also become a blessing to all those nations around them because they show them what true human live should be like. They can be a blessing, but often they became a source of tension. Using terminology such as dog, is one way to cause tension.
Jesus looks at this woman and speaks to her. The fact that Jesus spoke to her even using such a terrible statement is something spectacular. And within this conversation we find a beautiful truth about life. “[F]or It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus says. And she responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She knows more about her relationship with Israel than most Pharisees knew about their relationship with the aliens among them. Yes, she had no right to demand a hearing from their rabbi, for she was not a member of their community, yet she did have a right to be near. She might be a dog, but a dog is able to sit under the table and no one is going to stop her getting the crumbs that might fall. Jesus is basically saying that the revelation of God is to be to and through the Jews. That is why he spends most of his time with them, that does not mean that the Gentiles are not welcome. They too can receive the revelation, but only when it comes through Israel.
She has faith that this God of Israel can do what He promises. She believes that this traveling preacher, is the one that was promised to the children of Israel, and her desire was to have this God heal her daughter. There is no difference between this woman and Ruth. Both were outsiders but knew that God was the God of all people. Jesus saw this seed of faith in her. She did not know the full extent of God’s grace, she did not know the rules, or the traditions. She was not a child of Israel, but she knew what she knew and believed. She was of a different culture, she practiced different things. She ate different foods, and she did not wash according the customs of the elders, because she did not know those customs. All she knew was what she had seen and heard. That single grain of faith was enough. That single grain of hope changes everything. She might not have a full vested faith, but it was enough to recognize who provided the wholeness she needed, and God responded, and her daughter was healed.
Jesus left the city of Tyre and proceeded to Decapolis. He returns to Israel, but he goes to the region of Israel that was settled by the Greeks. This again is a statement against the manmade regulations imposed on the religious community. He wants his followers to be very aware that human persons are not to be rejected because of who they are. They are not even to be rejected by their actions alone, but we should look deeper and understand why they are doing what they do and walk with them in faith. When he entered this town, the residence brought a man to him who was deaf and had an issue with his speech. It is important that Mark noted that the man had both issues present. If someone lost their hearing later in life, most people around them would not sense the disability. They would simply see that an individual withdrew from conversations and became more isolated. The fact that this man had impaired speech shows us that he was either born deaf or lost his hearing very early in life. I personally have experience in this area, since I have been hearing impaired from early childhood, and the doctors that examined my hearing were often amazed that I did not have impaired speech as well. I must give that credit to my mother who patiently taught me to speak as clearly as possible.
For most the lack of hearing is a forgotten disability. In ancient times, especially when dealing with exorcisms the ability to converse with the spirit was important. This man could not speak, he could not hear to acknowledge that Jesus was attempting to communicate with him. Yet the people were amazed by Jesus’s ability to heal even this man.
Let us look at the way Jesus provided this cure. The first thing to note is that Jesus did not do this in front of everyone, but in private. The second thing is that he placed his fingers in the man’s ears and spat and touched his tongue. My first response is gross. I say this because I have seen what is in ears, but the second part is how is Jesus touching this man’s tongue? Let us remember that Jesus is proving a point, he is showing the disciples and the religious leaders that manmade rules, though they may be beneficial, are not always the will of God. Jesus looks this man in the face he grasps the man’s head and places his fingers in the man’s ears, he spits and touches the man’s tongue, and he looks to heaven and speaks the word Ephphatha which means open. He speaks in Greek. He touches a man and converses to the Father in Greek. All people are loved by God. All people have the opportunity of grace. All people Jew, Greek, Phoenician, all people are loved by God. They may not act the way we do, they may not have the same traditions, or understanding, but that is not necessarily sinful. The what must be looked at through the why.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends let us consider the risky and unorthodox approach Jesus used to present the Gospel this week. If we look at it from the surface we might see something scandalous: the use of derogatory phrases, or spending time with people different than himself. But we know that Jesus did not sin. Let us look at our own lives and see if we are focused on the core of the Gospel or only on manmade religious dogma. Are we focused on the hope that Christ gives or our institution? And are we loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ in our lives at work, at home, at the doctor’s office, and in the store as well as here in this Meetinghouse.
 Image by: Thierry Ona: Forgiveness
Mark 7:1–8 (NRSV)
The Tradition of the Elders
7 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 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.) 5 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?” 6 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;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Mark 7:14–15 (NRSV)
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Mark 7:21–23 (NRSV)
21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Sometimes we as humans have trouble with different. Have you ever noticed this? It is something that seems to plague every culture and pretty much every age group within. The kid in the school yard just received new glasses which they are so excited about because they make them look smart older is ridiculed because of them. Why? For the simple fact that they are different. It does not even matter if the day before they were one of the more popular people in the classroom, once something sets them apart people notice and it is not always nice to be noticed.
The disciples of Christ were noticed as well. Jesus was attracting a great deal of attention in today’s passage. To set the seen in the previous chapter, Jesus went home to Nazareth and was rejected because everyone knew him and his family, they knew he was not trained in the rabbinical schools and they did not like the fact that he was teaching them. Jesus then sent his twelve closest friends out into the towns and villages to minister in his name. While the disciples were out and about in the countryside, they were able to cast out many demons, and when they anointed people with oil many were cured of their illnesses. The twelve were amazed at the power they were wielding they could hardly contain themselves. And the notoriety of Jesus increased.
It was getting to such a fervor that the king Herod had heard of him. This king who was essentially a governor granted his position by the grace of Rome but was given this position because of his personal heritage as relative of Herod the Great, who could be the last king of the Hasmonean Dynasty which was the royal family of Israel that fought and gained their independence from the over lordship of Greece. Herod could be the last of this dynasty, not because of his linage but because he married someone within the family, but not of the children of that wife survived to continue line. But this king Herod was a descendant of Herod the Great, but Herod the Great was too powerful for Rome so they broke the kingdom up into four parts and placed one of the relatives over each. And then somehow, they convinced one of those relatives to make Caesar an heir, and another was deemed unfit to rule so Rome had to send troops in as peacekeepers. The King of which Mark speaks is Herod Antipas, the man who married his brother’s wife and under the direction of this wife was seduced by his step daughter who was also his niece into killing John the Baptist. Herod heard of this traveling preacher and was convinced that it was John coming back to haunt him.
The disciples were excited about everything that was going on, they were so active in their ministries that they were to rest, unable to rest even to have a proper meal, and Jesus wisely said come with me to an isolated place to rest. Jesus knew the limits of the human body, not only was he divine and created the body, but he lived within a human body for the past thirty years. He knew that to maintain a healthy spiritual life you needed a holy rhythm of worship, prayer, and ministry. And of those the most important component was prayer. It is in prayer that we have the intimacy with God, where we can be lead, encouraged, and strengthened by the Spirit. So, they went across the sea to an isolated place, but the people saw where they were heading and gathered there as well. A multitude gathered, and Jesus had compassion on them and began to teach them. As time became later, and the crowd was hungry he fed the multitude with five loaves and two fish. This was a meal for one person, a small meal at that feed over five thousand people.
Jesus was gaining a great deal of attention. Even the attention of the religious scholars and Mosaic lawyers. From the central holy see in Jerusalem a contingency of Pharisees and scribes came to speak to Jesus. Jesus had met with a few of these people on previous occasions but now they came with a purpose, they came to distract attention. They came to derail the movement and the influence of this uneducated traveling teacher who was turning the people’s attention away from Jerusalem and moving it to the countryside.
They ask, “Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Everything that Jesus was doing, all the things that could not be explained by science of today or of ancient times, all the people who had witnessed these feats and they ask about hygiene. Think about this for a moment. People were being healed of illnesses, some of which had would be considered chronic illnesses today. People possessed with evil and unclean spirits were being freed from the chains of bondage. All of this and all they had to say is why do your disciples eat without washing according to our traditions.
As I read through these things I thought deeply about where these traditions came from and what they entailed. There is no law of Moses that requires Israel to wash prior to eating, the only people that must wash before eating are priest who must be ritually clean to eat of the consecrated meats in the temple. But this is a requirement for them to be in the temple, so it really does not apply. Why these teachings came about is from a desire to avoid uncleanliness of others. These teachings have their roots in great wisdom from honored people within Israel like Solomon, but they are not part of the law. So, these rules people live by although not wrong in and of themselves and are in fact beneficial in most applications do not indicate any legal requirement. Yet these lawyers and religious scholars are questioning Jesus about these traditions.
There are six hundred and thirteen laws in the Old Testament, that is right six hundred and thirteen of which these lawyers could find some fault in the disciples over. But they did not indicate any of these laws only the traditions of the elders. This is quite interesting if you think about it. Of the six hundred and thirteen four hundred and sixty-four apply to everyone in Israel. Of those two hundred twenty-three are based on reverence to God and of those one hundred and forty-four are based in the temple. Leaving a total of three hundred and twenty laws that the people of Israel need to follow in their daily lives. Of those sixty-three are based on civil codes of basic governance which most people do not interact with on a regular basis, leaving two hundred and fifty-seven. Thirty-eight deal with financial dealing and interest, twenty-eight deal with marriage, nineteen deal with cultivation of land, five deal with the family, fifteen deal with how we treat other individuals around us. Twenty-six deal with food, and of all the laws given in scripture only five deal with uncleanness and purification. There are a lot of laws that they could investigate, but they focus in on the five on purity. Of those five laws that deal with purity two of those were based on purification of the entire congregation of the nation, which is a law that falls on the priest, and three deal with people. One dealing with childbirth, one dealing with bodily discharges for both men and women, and one dealing with pests getting into the food, seed, and water supply.
I tell you this because of everything that a legal and religious scholar could point out in any assembly of people dedicated to a religious practice, they focus on something that God does not give much attention too. Cleanliness is important but what those laws basically boil down to is take a bath after certain activities and don’t drink water that animals have died in. These laws are not that profound, I grew up on a farm, we had well water and I can tell you that it does not take a priest to tell you that you should not drink water that animals have died in. Your nose can pretty much tell you right away that you should stay away from that water. But it is the traditions around washing that the legal advisors focus on.
Which brings us to the elders, who are these people and why are their teachings important. There really was not an office of the elder’s official until Israel returned from captivity, and even then, it really did not become a major institution until after the temple was destroyed. But these teachings of the elders are just that, teachings. They are the teachings of people of whom people respected. This respect was a result of life experience, or because of age. Today in our tradition of faith we would call these individuals weighty friends. Their words carry weight for some reason. These teachings are not all inclusive. They are at best situational discussions. Regarding the washing of hands before eating, the teaching is that if it is good for a priest it should be good for us. If God was requiring one to be that clean why would he allow everyone else to remain unclean, because our uncleanliness could defile that of the priest we contact. The teaching makes great sense, but it is not required, and the legal advisors know this. They were wanting to present to the people that Jesus was leading them away from righteousness instead of leading them to greater holiness. The problem is they are talking to Jesus.
He does not let them off the hook either, quoting Isaiah, “You abandon the commandments of God and hold to human tradition.” This statement struck me as I reflected on the past few weeks. How often do we teach tradition as law? I reflected on many of our traditions and statements among Friends and even among other Holiness groups. I look at dancing, enjoying a game of cards with friends, an occasional drink, or even attending a theatrical performance. These were all things that holiness traditions looked down upon to varying degrees. They have very good reasons to hold to these teachings, but they are not things that if used in moderation will lead to the destruction of the soul. I consider the sacraments that we among the church hold in high regard, the things like baptism, the Eucharist, confession, marriage, confirmation, anointing the sick, and ordination. We teach of these things as if they are God’s law, but they are not. They are traditions. Yes, some of the traditions are good and have grounding in scripture but you cannot prove that scripture requires them as means of God’s grace. The traditions we teach are there to encourage a deeper relationship and heighten our devotion. When we teach traditions as law it fills in the relationship with silty sediment that keeps it shallow and it causes our devotion to become obligatory instead of heart felt.
Jesus tells us this very thing, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things coming out are what defile.” And he continues by saying, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” What does this mean? It is not always the what that matters but the why. Why is a person having an occasional drink? Why is a person playing cards? Why is a person participating in a certain form of worship? Why is a person married or not? It is not always the what that is the problem, but the why. It is not always the what that is the solution but the why. Why are these people so worried about the lack of washing hands out in the countryside where people are eating on the ground on a side of a hill? They are concerned because if people can do this, if they cannot hold their greater devotion over them as a sign of power they have lost influence. The tradition of washing, which by the way is a very good and sometimes important tradition, was being wielded tool of price and envy. It was not out of true devotion but exploitation. This is spiritual abuse and Jesus hates it.
This is the very reason why Jesus went into the temple and became angry, therefore he ripped hair out of a horse’s tail and viciously swung it at the vendors while they conducted their business. They did not care about the truth, they wanted to twist the truth, causing the guilt of others to be translated int personal profit. This causes me to pause. It causes me to consider many things that I do and teach. I may not agree with someone else’s conduct but is that conduct a transgression against my own understanding of the truth or is it an actual transgression. It is what is within us that cause evil, the why not always the what.