Hearing the Words of Jesus (Psalm 15; Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23)
One of the very first lessons I learned about Hebrew had to do with the word “to hear,” which is shama. In Hebrew, one hasn’t heard until one has acted on, or obeyed, what one has heard. Like so many other words in Hebrew, this one is more about action than strictly about attitude or experience.
We’re coming up to the beginning of a new season of Thursday Evening Education. Above all, there, we learn together to read the Bible well. To do that, one of the things that we need to remember, is that most stories in the Bible have a number of contexts (usually three) of which we should be aware. In some texts, these contexts are easier to see than in others.
They are fairly simple in Gospel stories. The first context is that of the setting of the story itself. For example, in Mark 7 today, a confrontation that Jesus had with religious leaders concerning the issue of purity. The second context is the use that Mark made of the story in and for the life of his own congregation about 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This second context almost always explains the form and content of the story more aptly than just assuming that Mark was transcribing events in Jesus’ life, so that readers would be able to memorize them and know them for a test. It is a way that Mark’s hearers or readers would be able to hear Jesus’ words in a different time than Jesus’ day.
In this story in Mark 7 itself, Jesus interacted with three groups: Jewish leaders in verses 1-13, “the crowd” in verses 14-15, and, privately, the disciples in verses 17-23. The lectionary text gives us pieces of all three of these. The subject starts out to be about identifying the things and people that are on the inside of the community (safe, clean), and the things that are outside (unsafe, unclean, polluted). Most communities have such boundaries to mark the inside from the outside: they did, we do.
I know we all grew up thinking that the Pharisees were bad people who did nothing but load rules and regulations on already religiously burdened people and did no positive good. And, although there is no doubt that the way the story is told aids in that impression, I do not generally believe that people, even ones we are convinced are wrong-headed, mostly get up in the morning with the desire to be as evil as they can that day. They are following a the way that will, they think, lead to the destination they need or wish to reach. They did, we do.
I am grateful that our knowledge of the diversity within Judaism around the time of Jesus has grown greatly over the past years. In reality, the Pharisees were not the bad guys at all, but were people who had decided that it was important in their own diverse Jewish culture, not to mention the pluralistic environment of the wider Mediterranean world, to give everyday people concrete and clear ways to be Jewish, and not to become indistinguishable from their culture. One way they did this was by taking certain practices that the Bible applied only to priests (such as ritual washing before eating) and applying them to all Jews. They also attempted to work out contemporary practices for putting their view of a biblical lifestyle into the world, so that people could have strategies to hang onto their identity in an increasingly secular world. Some called this oral collection of material the Tradition of the Elders. Historically speaking, the Pharisees, in their variety, made it possible for the Jewish people, as a tiny minority in the world, to survive. I am grateful for what they did. I believe their question to Jesus was heart-felt. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” In short, “Don’t you care about defining your identity as over against this godless world in which we live?” I know Christians who, although they substitute their own tests for identity, ask the same questions today.
Jesus responded that the Pharisees added the human oral tradition of the elders to the word of the Bible. Sometimes we stop reading there and say, “Just like those so and so’s (you fill in the blank) who add all their human regulations to the word of God.” That’s the product of less than careful reading, actually, for Jesus, when he came to the “crowd” said, “Listen to me.” It’s not that Jesus doesn’t believe that some oral tradition isn’t necessary to guide interpretation of the Bible, it’s what tradition, or whose tradition it is. “Listen to me,” he says. He went on to say that we cannot blame our harmful tendencies on something external – the devil made me do it – rather on what is internal and comes out of us. Not what goes in, but what comes out makes us unclean. Now the fact is that the more general “crowd” to which Jesus spoke his words, understood how hard it was to do all the things that the Pharisees required. Regular people who had to work in the world knew that water was a precious commodity, for one thing, that they couldn’t just use for baths. They also knew that normal people ran into dead animals in the fields and they couldn’t just stop and take time for a ritual bath. They knew that normal working people couldn’t do what the Pharisees asked. So, they had developed their own, less rigorous tradition for following the Torah. Jesus spoke both out of and into that tradition. He identified with the little people and with what is called “the little tradition” rather than the elite people and the “great tradition of the elders.” We’re dealing with two ways of putting faith into practice that existed already, and Jesus simply identified with one not the other.
Finally, Jesus spoke to his disciples in private and, building on this little tradition that he’d used with the crowd, told his disciples that things that come from the outside just go into the stomach and on out of the body. They don’t defile. It’s the harmful stuff that emanates from our hearts (from the core of our personalities) that cause all kinds of destruction (and he names a list of ten things that refer to at least five of the ten commandments). Mark makes the comment that Jesus declared all foods clean. That meant that it wasn’t about what one ate or drank or with whom one ate or drank it that marked off Jesus’ community from others. His community was different.
The reason why Mark told the story in the way he did undoubtedly stemmed from a discussion in his community between those disciples of Jesus with a Jewish background (now a minority) and those who did not claim such a heritage, about whether one had to observe Jewish rituals of clean and unclean in order to be a disciple of Jesus. In the passage, we can clearly see that Mark sides with the Gentile Christians and with the more progressive way. One way we see this that doesn’t show up in English so much (unless we read very carefully) is that Mark has Jesus quoting Isaiah 29:13, not from the Hebrew, but from the Greek Old Testament, which most Gentiles used, but Jesus would not have. This makes a difference because it’s only the Greek version that makes the point emphasizing human commandments and teachings rather than divine commands. The Hebrew doesn’t. English Old Testaments are translations of the Hebrew, so look it up Isaiah 29:13 in the English Old Testament to check and see. Mark wanted his community to understand that Jesus’ words outweigh all other interpretive words, and held the status of divine words for those who would be his disciples. Marks readers are reading Greek, and are, thus probably Gentiles.
There is a third context for these words, and that is what they say to us today. This context must continue along the path set out by the other two, but continues into our own specifics. Our job is not simply to mouth the words of our ancestors (which becomes our own “tradition of the elders”), but to think through the direction in which Jesus’ words point, given not only his world and the world of the gospel writer, but also our own world. We live now. What do those of us who don’t care at all about ritual washing, etc., in the first century, do with this text? How ought we define ourselves and our community as the words of this scripture interpreted by Jesus point us forward? The contexts must all cohere and head in the same general direction, but they are the product of three different time periods, cultures, geographies, even languages.
In my view, Mark’s account of Jesus’ interaction with the three groups in this story says that, although certain ways of living may apply in other communities, they do not apply in Jesus’ community (in any age). What lies behind the attitude that Jesus rejects is fear that the dirty world will defile us, so that we must exclude things and people that look and act differently. Jesus said that what actually defiles people does not come from associating with the wrong sorts and by breaking human tribal regulations, but from our harmful interior intentions that lead to all kinds of harmful acts like murder, avarice, deceit, and the like. Any true Pharisee in Jesus’ day would have agreed with him both about evil intentions being a product of the human heart, and about the harmfulness of the list of vices Jesus’ mentioned. But there are two different ways to approach the harm that people do. The first primarily guards the purity of religious identity against a secular world. Jesus implied that guarding purity, and fear of impurity from others, is not what life is about. When we hear these words of Jesus, life is about risking ourselves to care for others in society, without asking how secular it is, or how “different” they are. Hearing the words of Jesus will lead contemporary Christian communities to define themselves by who they include rather than by who they exclude. We will take care what comes out of us.
If that’s true, then we can even come to texts like Psalm 15, and refuse to read it as a list of virtues we must have before we may commune with God. Indeed, if we do read it that way, it will actually mean that no one may have communion with God, because no one really does these things consistently. Reading the Psalm as this kind of legalism would also stand against almost everything Jesus said and did.
If, however, we read Psalm 15 in the light of what Jesus taught, we can see that it provides a model for life that issues from God’s goodness toward us. It’s a quick sketch of some of the natural outcomes of communion with God; speaking the truth as we know it rather than slandering, demeaning, and demonizing others. Communion with God means intending no harm to those around us. Communion with God means refusing to make common cause with harmful people, even passively. It means making good on our promise, even when it is costly. It means not doing things simply for gain wealth, power or influence, but for the good of others. Such are the marks of a firm and stable life that reflects the goodness of God and that hears the words of Jesus.
Reading biblical texts, and following them, through the lens of Jesus’ inclusive spirit is a valuable lesson, although it’s not easy to learn and apply. It’s easier to say we’re inclusive than to be inclusive. Such demands constant discipline and thought to do it with both integrity and intelligence. We don’t always do it perfectly, but the point is, to keep on thinking and trying. May God give us grace to do just that, and keep on thinking about it and trying to do it better and better.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.