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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before August 30, 2015

Mark 7:1-23

7Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they 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; 4and 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.) 5So 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?” 6He 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;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

What I Am Learning:

This seems like an obscure passage, almost a throw away.

This passage is actually really, really important.

The Pharisees (who believed that if most people would fulfill the 613 laws that God would act to free them from Roman occupation) and the scribes (experts in the Torah) came from Jerusalem to inspect Jesus and his followers. They find that the disciples were eating with unwashed hands. This was not a concern for hygiene. It was a concern for purity.

Rabbinical law dictated that one’s hands must be washed before eating a holy meal in the temple or when eating a meal in which includes bread. This ritual is something like what Christians do before eating a meal: praying a prayer to remind us of the sacredness of all of life and to give thanks for the blessing of life. Jewish people were also asked to pray after the meal was done, giving thanks for the meal.

The proceedure goes like this:

  1. make sure your hands are free of dirt
  2. remove your rings
  3. pour water from a cup twice on your right hand
  4. do the same with your left
  5. with your hands chest high, pray this prayer

Blessed are you, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands

The concern for purity, according to Countryman, was about developing a sense of unity as a people in covenant with God. If someone did not wash their hands then you knew they were not of your people. You didn’t need to see a passport or flag pin or anything else. You just knew by their actions.

There were 613 of these laws, one for every part of the body and for every day of the year. Many of these laws were actually references to other whole sets of laws. These 613 laws covered theological, moral, foods and food preparation, economic, familial relationships, ritual instructions, agricultural, architectural, legal, military, and personal grooming. They are quite comprehensive. You can read below a sample of the laws, many of which we would agree with today. Here is a link to the whole thing.

Tattoos are a no-go. You can’t cook with meat and milk which pretty much rules out the American diet. You can’t mix threads of different kinds to make a garment. The power of men over women is assumed and often is expressed in horrific ways. Women are unclean during their menstrual cycle which is odd as that biological process makes procreation possible. The predominance of Hebrew people over other nations is also presumed – and expressed in shockingly violent ways. Slaves are okay, even if they were compelled to treat Hebrew slaves better than the Canaanite slave, who could only be released after a limb was removed. This is just horrific!

Our whole financial system is also completely ruled out. Receiving or charging interest, taking collateral for loans especially when it impacts the daily life of others is expressly prohibited. Loans must be forgiven every 7 years and land returned to the family every 50 years. Charity and care for the poor was expressly commanded.

I am sure Wall Street and our corporate bankers just snort at that.

But we should not snort at these 613 laws. They represent an attempt to be clear in writing about how to construct a society, albeit from a very, very different cultural world.

These laws express some values that we can continue to emulate.

But any moral, communal code will fall short at some point. Living out love for God, self and neighbor is a complicated business and we need to be open to learning how to live out love more completely.

This is the issue that Jesus takes on in his conversation with the Pharisees and the scribes.

They take Jesus to task for his disciples not obeying the law about hand washing. Jesus takes them to task for using some laws and other practices to withdraw their support from their parents. They would take all their assets and claim that they were an offering to God, continue to use them, but not give any support to their parents.

Then Jesus proposes that the part of the 613 laws that are clearly about purity, such as those about food regulation, can be set aside in favor rigorous ethics of neighbor love.

He said that the food does not defile me, but rather what I use the energy of food to do can defile me. The cheeseburger does not defile my body (although I would not want to eat one very often) but the way I treat my neighbor does defile me.

Jesus proposed that purity laws needed to be ended. The unity they sought to bring had just as often been used as a part of the bullying culture, making some worth more or less than others. The reality of these 613 laws, according to many Biblical scholars, is that the 85% of the poor were not able to have the time, energy and money to obey them. These laws were being selectively used to the advantage of the rich and the disadvantage of the poor – a practice expressly forbidden in the laws themselves!

Some, particularly in the evangelical and fundamentalist traditions, understand that Jesus hit “the reset button” on some of these laws. But after Jesus, or at least beyond the New Testament, that once again these laws are stuck in amber and cannot be changed.

They use this argument especially in reference to issues of sexuality such as GLBTQ and same sex marriage. They say that because Jesus never explicitly overturned the prohibition against same-sex sexual relationships that the church cannot do so.

Many of these same Christians use life insurance, invest in stocks and bonds and are happy to eat cheeseburgers all of which are forbidden.

Many of these same Christians would agree that the enslavement of human beings is wrong, despite the fact that the early Christians did not challenge it.

The fact is, all Christians, regardless of our position on scripture, have chosen to ignore or repudiate some of the 613 laws that Jesus himself did not set aside.

While it may feel safe to have a proof text as we discern what ethical stances to take, we will not always have them. Nor should we abandon the tradition which has so profoundly encouraged us to the love of God, self, and neighbor.

In this passage, Jesus invites us to the messy business of ethics – to the learning, often through trial and error, what enables us to live out love as individuals and as communities.

Jesus is not replacing one set of laws for another. He is not just editing 613 laws down to a more manageable list. He is replacing our unconscious reliance on a set of laws for a conscious living out of love, and a striving for a more just and equitable society.

Jesus’ disciples not only have the right to set aside certain moral guidelines from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures when they fall short of love, we have been commanded to do so by Jesus.

These guidelines are best when they serve as a mirror to our own intentions and actions and as they help us to critique a society and economy which produces so many vulnerable and poor. They invite us to see the words of Isaiah as being about us, to question our own living out of love for our neighbor: to wonder if we just honor God with our lips, worshiping God in vain and abandoning the commandment of God for human traditions. Jesus invites us ethics, but to ethics that include much reflection on our own actions and our own society.

Jesus invites us to the greatest commandment, to love. Living love more completely is both possible and always more complicated than we expect. But love is our calling nonetheless, a calling from a God who loves us and all and who invites and even teases us to love more fully.

A Sample of the 613 Laws

4. To love G-d--Deuteronomy 6:5

9. To listen to the prophet speaking in G-d’s Name--Deuteronomy 18:15

18. Not to oppress the weak--Exodus 22:21

46. Not to swear in the name of an idol--Exodus 23:13

49. Not to pass your children through the fire to Molech--Leviticus 18:21

69. Men, you must not be trimming your beard with a razor--Leviticus 19:27

85. To bless the Almighty after eating--Deuteronomy 8:10

86. To circumcise all males on the eighth day after their birth--Leviticus 12:3

87. To rest on the seventh day--Exodus 23:12

161. Not to have sexual relations with a menstrually impure woman--Leviticus 18:19

167. Not to let a eunuch marry into the Jewish people--Deuteronomy 23:2

186. Not to eat worms found in fruit once they have left the fruit--Leviticus 11:42

195. Not to eat meat and milk cooked together--Exodus 23:19

230. To estimate the value of consecrated fields--Leviticus 27:16

234. Not to plant diverse seeds together--Leviticus 19:19

238. Not to wear Shatnez, a cloth woven of wool and linen--Deuteronomy 22:11

251. Not to withhold charity from the poor--Deuteronomy 15:7

285. To release all loans during the seventh year--Deuteronomy 15:3

304. To show reverence for the Temple--Leviticus 19:30

333. A Kohen with a physical blemish must not serve--Leviticus 21:17

348. To salt all sacrifices--Leviticus 2:13

494. Make a guard rail around flat roofs--Deuteronomy 22:8

514. Canaanite slaves must work forever unless the owner amputates one of their limbs--Leviticus 25:46

529. The creditor must not forcibly take collateral--Deuteronomy 24:10

530. Return the collateral to the debtor when needed--Deuteronomy 24:13

531. Not to delay its return when needed--Deuteronomy 24:12

532. Not to demand collateral from a widow--Deuteronomy 24:17

533. Not to demand as collateral utensils needed for preparing food--Deuteronomy 24:6

534. Not to lend with interest--Leviticus 25:37

535. Not to borrow with interest--Deuteronomy 23:20

544. A judge who presented an acquittal plea must not present an argument for conviction in capital cases--Exodus 23:2

556. The court must not punish anybody who was forced to do a crime--Deuteronomy 22:26

558. A judge must not have mercy on the poor man at the trial--Leviticus 19:15

559. A judge must not respect the great man at the trial--Leviticus 19:15

593. The king must not have too many wives--Deuteronomy 17:17

596. Destroy the seven Canaanite nations--Deuteronomy 20:17

604. Not to destroy fruit trees even during the siege--Deuteronomy 20:19

608. He who has taken a wife, built a new home, or planted a vineyard is given a year to rejoice with his possessions--Deuteronomy 24:5

610. Not to panic and retreat during battle--Deuteronomy 20:3

611. Keep the laws of the captive woman--Deuteronomy 21:11

612. Not to sell her into slavery--Deuteronomy 21:14

613. Not to retain her for servitude after having relations with her--Deuteronomy 21:14