Grace Presbyterian Church
August 30, 2015, Ordinary 22B
Deuteronomy 4:5-9; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The book of Deuteronomy is an odd fit in this first portion of our scriptures, in that its content is largely a recapitulation of laws (or, as this book typically labels them, “statutes and ordinances”) that are already included in Exodus or Leviticus or maybe Numbers. Why it was deemed necessary to do so isn’t always understood; some scholars suggest that it was actually conceived later as a reassertion of those statutes and ordinances to a people who had already strayed from them. Whatever its function, it is framed as Moses’s last great sermon to the Hebrew people – those soon-to-be Israelites – before his own death and their crossing (under Joshua) into the Promised Land.
There are, explicitly stated or implied, several different reasons Moses gives for commanding the obedience of the people. Perhaps most interesting is the idea that the current inhabitants of the land would be so impressed by a people who observed such an impressive corpus of law. One wonders how that works: wow, guys, that’s some really great law y’all have brought with you… (it's hard not to wonder if Native Americans had that reactions to the laws that various European groups brought with them to North America). On the other hand, verses three and four (which were not read here) offer a different reason to keep these statutes: the memory of a group among the Hebrew people who had not kept those laws in a previous incident, and their untimely end.
Not so explicitly stated, but implied in the text, is the idea that these “statutes and ordinances” distilled from the experience of the Hebrew people simply represented the way to live that was going to be most fulfilling, most enriching, most satisfying for the people. This is, frankly, a long way from how we think of law today. For the most part we tend to think of it as restriction of freedom, limitation rather than liberation.
Steed Graham of McCormick Theological Seminary points out the ways in which people are more likely to respond to the promulgation of law, not just but particularly in scripture. Some are cowed by what they hear as a call to be perfect. Others are convinced they are doomed to failure before they even start. Still others consider it an imposition on a relationship that was (they understood) meant to be liberating rather than restrictive.
Now the Pharisees who show up in the gospel reading are a different sort altogether. They might fall into Davidson’s first category – seeing the “statutes and ordinances” as a call to perfection – but rather than being cowed or intimidated by it, they whip through the statutes and ordinances and adjust their collars and straighten up and say “we got this.” Then they set about applying the law, and its interpretation. While they were not rabbis themselves, the Pharisees placed a great deal of emphasis on keeping these “ordinances and statutes” and their extensions as interpreted by numerous rabbis over the centuries.
To take this story for example, there is no specific provision forbidding plucking kernels of grain without washing your hands. Not in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy. There were, though, laws concerning ritual purity in everything from liturgical practice to more mundane aspects of life, and later rabbinical traditions held that eating with unwashed hands could be interpreted as a violation of the spirit of such laws. Your grandmother would probably approve of their great concern with washing hands, food from the markets, pots, cups, and so forth.
In this case, though, Jesus isn’t at all interested in the finer points of purity laws. Actually, it almost seems in reading this that Jesus was ready to let these Pharisees (who had apparently come up from Jerusalem just to hound him) have it, and was just waiting for the slightest provocation. Picking on the disciples (fishermen and other rough guys) for their hand-washing habits was more than enough for Jesus to light into the Pharisees for their coldness of heart and their elevation of human traditions over divine commandments. In verses 9-13, which were not read, he offers up a particularly egregious example, by which a person could designate resources that might otherwise have been devoted to the care of his parents as “corban,” or “designated for God,” and therefore escape the command to “honor thy father and mother,” which you will remember is one of the Big Ten of laws.
In their zeal to be perfect (and to be blunt, to compel others to their particular brand of perfection), these Pharisees displayed (to Jesus) a particular kind of corruption and coldness of heart that flew in the face of their obsessively kept traditions. All their purity of ritual couldn’t compensate for the corruption of their hearts, as Jesus saw it.
Certainly I don’t have to point out too many examples of this today, do I? I mean, I could mention, say, an individual with a great interest in projecting a public image of purity – even a member of a large family dedicated to fostering such an image, let’s say, with a television show – whose name turns out to be on the customer list of a website devoted to facilitating extramarital affairs. But rather then get hung up on name-calling, let’s get to the point here; laws, or statutes and ordinances, or purity codes don’t change hearts.
The Apostle Paul will consume much ink on this subject, particularly in the book of Romans. The law is pretty good, he will observe, at showing us our sinfulness; it isn’t much help in overcoming it, though, as Paul lamented in his own life. Eating or not eating certain foods isn’t going to bring about purity of heart; after all, as Jesus points out, it comes in and goes out and doesn’t necessarily stick around long, while the hardness and pride of our hearts lingers on and on. Our hearts are as likely to turn such dietary purity into an object of sinful pride.
The things that defile a person come from within, and only within will they be changed. Only genuine encounter with the Spirit, real experience and practice of the “kingdom of God come near,” is going to do that. Adherence to those statutes and ordinances may well make an impression on those around us as Moses suggested, but correcting of the heart is another matter.
The law has its place. We don’t want to live wantonly or disreputably. But to confuse varieties of ritual purity, ancient or modern, with a genuine and caring heart for Christ, a heart that extends itself in care for and service to others, a heart that sings with unmistakable and unquenchable joy, is to make the mistake the Pharisees made. To the degree our laws or our statutes and ordinances or our human traditions are not only unhelpful, but become an active obstacle to the working of the Spirit and the advancing of the kingdom of God, we are setting ourselves in direct opposition to Christ’s work in God’s world.
May it never be so with us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Humnal)
#13 The Mighty God With Power Speaks
#669 Let’s Sing Unto the Lord
#383 Dream On, Dream On
#324 For All the Faithful Women
#726 Will You Come and Follow Me
#63 The Lord Is God
#852 When the Lord Redeems the Very Least