Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 14 Sunday 2 September 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
After a detour into St John’s Gospel we’ve returned to this year’s main guide, St Mark.
Not only have we detoured into John, but we’ve also skipped a short section of Mark – the feeding of the five thousand. Not coincidentally, we’ve been hearing instead from John about Jesus as the bread of life, the new Manna, the life-giving bread. It has been a five-week meditation on Jesus as the true bread from heaven; on how eternal life, real life, what gives meaning to breathing, is that which comes to us from above, from God. This is all part of that larger reminder that the Word of God is a person, not a text, and, as I said to you last week, we come here to encounter him, to be nourished in eternal life, something we should treasure, celebrate and share.
So where do we pick up our principal guide for the year? Perhaps unsurprisingly we’re still on food. But now we are coming to the old Manna, the traditions about eating which form part of distinctive, community-defining, Jewish life, and which, as we learn in Acts, were among the first issues the church had to face in gathering in all God’s children to the family of their heavenly Father. Would Gentiles have to undertake all the requirements of the Jewish Law?
Our problem with this early argument is that we don’t see it as a problem. After twenty centuries of Christian teaching, the idea that particular foods, let alone particular rituals of hand-washing, define our relationship with God seems so odd that preachers have to explain it before rejecting it.
Faced with issues of poverty, injustice, corruption of the state and natural disasters which continue to blight the lives of our brothers and sisters throughout the world, not to mention the President of the USA, what are we doing here this morning thinking about ritual uncleanness? What can we make of this old argument between Jesus and the conscientious keepers of the Jewish Law?
The broader context of this exchange between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees provides an essential backdrop. This follows the feeding of the five thousand and the healing of large numbers of sick people, incidents which offer an intentional contrast with ritual washing before eating. The episode is followed by the stories of the persistent faith of the doubly unclean Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin (she who asks only for crumbs from the household table and whose daughter is then healed), and the restoration of hearing and speech to a deaf man living in the Gentile area called the Decapolis (7:24–37).
Jesus’ critique of Jewish laws and traditions (“Thus he declared all foods clean,” 7:19, a verse unhelpfully excised from today’s reading) is immediately brought home by the healings of these non-Jewish people (and note the symmetry with the Jewish healings earlier).
Paul’s teaching in his core letters, Romans and Galatians, is about this: whether or not these Jewish laws and traditions are the key to relationship with God. Paul helped create the Christian church by dispensing with those things as the distinctive markers of God’s people; without this change there would be no Christian Church. Today’s gospel is part of the evidence that the change comes from Jesus, not just Paul.
Jesus’ final point today is not complex:
“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out of a person are what defile” (Mark 7:15).
Holiness based on food laws and traditions of ritual purity is rejected in one knock-down statement. What matters is the heart, the seat of the will, where decisions are made about one’s neighbours and where attitudes are harboured which inform unexamined actions.
This disagreement with the scribes and Pharisees is more than a quibble about legalism, and more than an attack on a controlling religious sect. Jesus’ words are aimed at the structure of this type of religion, at how holiness and sin are defined, how the word of God regulates the life of the people of God. The ensuing stories of healing, for the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman and a male gentile from the Decapolis, depict the generous ways of God. Neither of these characters knows about ritual purity or the tradition of the elders; both know about the divine generosity that makes one whole . Jesus is not patching up the old in order to make it more serviceable: this is new wine for new wineskins. In questioning the behaviour of religious leaders as a matter of consistency he inaugurates something entirely new.
New then, but not now. Modern media-fed life is so finely-tuned to the exposure of inconsistency and hypocrisy that this hardly seems like news. Where are the ‘undefiled hands’ in our society? The real danger in knowing so much from instantaneous media is that we enjoy observing hypocrisy in public and celebrity life and fail to examine ourselves. But the Gospel isn’t about policing others’ inadequate religious practice; it is about what in my life and religious practice stands in the way of God.
Gustavo Gutierrez, in the context of several South American dictatorships of the 70’s and 80’s, wrote this about today’s Gospel:
Defilement has nothing to do with not washing our hands. Instead it comes from harming others, forgetting their needs and believing that we are “clean”.
The appeal of the Lord remains valid. The gospels indicate Pharisaism as a risk for every believer. We see it among us and within ourselves. One way to water down the gospel is to transform it into a set of formal rules which need to be observed only externally…
True cleanliness consists of putting the Word of God into practice …
It demands of us concrete gestures toward others: caring for orphans and widows; visiting the victims of poverty, exploitation, and oblivion; opting for a just and human order and against what causes deaths, ‘disappearances’ and sufferings.
Gutierrez had on his mind the then-recent sacrifice of four assassinated priests who refused to be silenced in their solidarity with the poor. The surrender of lives, as he says, takes us far away from all formalism (as does the sacrifice of the cross, the template for martyrdom). He concludes by quoting a French poet, Charles Peguy, who speaks of people ‘whose hands are clean because they have no hands’: that is, those who don’t get involved, who ignore the poor, the homeless, the different; who rejoice in their own normality and avoidance of the suffering which comes to others.
Goodness is not the avoidance of formal wrong-doing and faith is a necessarily hands-on business. The cross, Jesus getting involved with us, in solidarity to the point of dying, that sacrifice to which we are united again in this Eucharist, is our ultimate reminder and acted proof of that hands-on faith.