In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Oh those Pharisees! Today’s Gospel is one of the many in which 21st Century Christians might look at the Pharisees and their challenging of Jesus, and sigh heavily as we say, “You guys just don’t get it.” And clearly the Pharisees did not get Jesus’ message. But if we are really honest with ourselves, do we consistently do any better?
In what we read today, Jesus debates with the Pharisees from Jerusalem over the fact that His disciples do not ritually wash their hands the way the Pharisees have prescribed for people. On the surface, this might be one of the rare times where we could understand the Pharisees. After all, performing a ritual hand washing before you eat is little different from saying grace before dinner. So why wouldn’t Jesus want His disciples to do that? Let’s look at a little context.
In the sixth chapter of Mark – which immediately precedes today’s reading – here is what happens: there is the feeding of the five thousand (6:30-44); Jesus walks on water (6:45-52); and He heals the sick in Gennesaret (6:53-56). Then, in the concluding verse of chapter 6, it says, “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.”
So in all likelihood, before they came from Jerusalem, the Pharisees would have been very aware that Jesus had been working hard to feed people, heal them of their ills, and give those without hope, new life. Knowing that He had been doing all of these wonderful things in the name of the God who created them all, the Pharisees came to challenge Him. But they did not ask Him how he had performed the miracles of feeding and healing. They did not ask Him how he discerned which people deserved to be fed or healed. They did not even ask Him what all of these miracles meant to His (or the people’s) relationship with God. Instead, they asked Him about His disciples washing their hands.
Now in order to really understand the Pharisees, we must understand that they were the keepers of Jewish law, and as such, they were the ones who were supposed to take a hard line against anyone who broke any of the 613 laws (or mitzvot) that made up both Torah (the Books of the Law) and the Mishna (the teachings of the Elders). To the Pharisees, every law was equally important and any transgression required punishment, in order to bring people back into “faithful” exercise of their religion. The Pharisees’ response may seem silly to us. But the same things happen today.
We have modern Pharisees who are every bit as serious and dedicated as those whom Jesus faced. When I was young in a very Anglo-Catholic, high-church parish, we acolytes had to meet in the sacristy thirty minutes before the service. After we checked all of the altar guild preparations to make sure that everything we needed was where it was supposed to be, we lit the candles and then came back into the sacristy to help the priest vest. His vestments were laid out in a very specific order, and folded in a very specific way. As he put on each different piece of clothing, we all said a one-line prayer (specific to each piece). After we had placed his chasuble over his head (that was the last piece of vesture), we all stood together and said a prayer of confession in which we beat our breasts three times (together, of course) and bowed to each other repeatedly. It was all very devout, very pious, very ritualistic, and of deep importance to our rector (a former monk). It was years after I was grown before it began to dawn on my how pharisaical all of that was.
You see it did not matter to our rector whether or not we (as parishioners, not necessarily as acolytes) fed the hungry, or gave drink to the thirsty, or visited the sick or imprisoned, it mattered if the cadence of our confession was correct and whether or not we hit our chests with a closed fist simultaneously. That is the exact pharisaism that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel. But that is just one example of modern-day pharisaic extremism.
What about those who tell you that there is one, and only one, way to read the Bible? Your understanding of Scripture cannot be correct because it does not match their own. And it does not matter to them that you are out working hard on God’s mission in the world by trying to respond to the unmet needs of the community. It does not matter that your openhearted love of Jesus Christ has brought hope to people who were hopeless before they met you, nor that you give as much as you possibly can in order make someone else’s life just a bit better. No, you don’t read the Bible “correctly,” therefore you are wrong. But it does not end there.
How about the folks whose mantra is more along the lines of: we have never done it that way here, therefore your way cannot be the right way? People who have strong opinions about the way things are done in the church are not bad people any more than the Pharisees were bad people for guarding the traditions of Judaism. But when we worry about how we do things, or who in the church does them, instead of whether or not we are carrying out God’s mission, we have become Pharisees.
Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah to the Pharisees, when He told them:
'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.
That is the epitome of pharisaic action. But Jesus was not finished with His message at that. He had something else to say to them. He went on:
"[I]t 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."
Jesus’ point was that those things that the Pharisees told the people were defiling them, were just man-made rules that had no effect on God’s mission. It was not their failure to follow the rules that defiled them, it was the evil that resided in their hearts that defiled. When they talked bad about each other; when they judged each other; when their pride made them put someone down in order to build themselves up, those were – and are – the defiling things.
You see … all of the things that we get worked up about, in and around our church: when clergy or a fellow parishioner does not do what you want; or does what you want, but not the way you want; when someone has a different vision of the way things should be than you do and therefore you will not cooperate with them; those are the pharisaic moments. In those moments, will you worry about the following of a ritual or a tradition that does not advance God’s mission, or will you try to find Jesus Christ in the other person so that, together you can move forward in mission? The author of the Letter of James put it this way:
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.