Readings Genesis 32.9–30; Mark 7.1-23
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Two great weekends if you are into people hitting balls with various kinds of stick, but there has been other stuff going on. Abu Qatada is finally gone. Home Secretary Teresa May might have felt like the mysterious figure in the first reading wrestling all night with that scoundrel Jacob. Two differences, though. It seems that the figure wrestling with Jacob is God, and it’s a no-holds-barred encounter, whereas the Qatada bout has been fought by the rules.
How frustrating – a person enters your country unlawfully, is a danger to your country and uses your country’s laws to remain there. The frustration led the minister to warn darkly that withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights had to be ‘on the table’. Remember, though, that it was the same human rights principles that underpinned another of her achievements, the protection of Gary Mackinnon, the young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, from extradition to the USA.
One law for everyone, good or bad; a point captured in A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s wordy play (and a slightly less wordy film) about Thomas More and the divorce of Henry VIII. In one scene, the More family discuss Richard Rich, a retainer of More’s who is flirting with the other side.
‘Father,’ says More’s daughter Margaret, ‘that man’s bad.’
‘There’s no law against that,’ says More.
‘There is,’ retorts Roper, Margaret’s hot-headed fiancé, ‘God’s law.’
‘Then God can arrest him.’
‘So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!’
‘Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?’
‘Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!’
‘Oh?’ says More, ‘and when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast…And if you cut them down…do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!’
Jesus’ nation was no stranger to such ideas. The Jews had the laws of Moses, far-reaching laws that covered public things – like fair dealing in business – and intimate things, like what you wear or eat, or who you sleep with. When we read them, some command respect now as then, while others sound strange, and very much of their time, and it would be hard (or indeed wrong) to apply them now. Their foundation, though, is admirable. The laws of Moses are a thoroughgoing answer to the question that Jacob wrestles with that night: ‘What does God want?’ It is a question which, according to these laws, must touch every person (from the smallest to the greatest) and every part of life (from the most public to the most private).
These were the laws that bound the Jews together and made them different among the surrounding, often hostile nations; and by the time of Jesus these are laws written in blood. Two centuries before, brave Jews died rather than break them and kowtow to their pagan Greek rulers. Now, in Jesus’ day, their pagan rulers are Romans, so these laws (and the stories of heroism they have bred) should be a source of dignity and hope. Why, then, in this evening’s reading from Mark, does Jesus seem to set them aside?
His attack is not on the laws of Moses as such, but on rules that the religious elite have added to them. This evening’s regulations about washing hands and pots and pans are not about hygiene but about ritual washing. The Pharisees ask Jesus why his followers eat not with ‘dirty’ hands but with ‘defiled’ hands, hands that haven’t been through the proper rituals to be acceptable to God (Mark 7.5).
Now this really matters. Ordinary hardworking Jews can’t keep all these rules in the way that the religious elite can: the poor just can’t afford to be apart from the unclean world of the pagans, especially the Romans, and especially here in ethnically-mixed Galilee. Indeed, the region’s economy partly depends on them not keeping all these rules: the markets of the holy city of Jerusalem are stocked with the grain of ‘unclean’ Galilee. Double standards, as if I rebuked you for shopping in Tesco this morning to buy food for Sunday lunch, but expected the La Buvette restaurant next door to serve me my roast and trimmings.
Laws which could have bound the nation together divide the nation. They are barriers between the poor and the rich. So what does Jesus do? He digs down to the foundations of the laws. What is this impurity stuff about? Isn’t it about being unfit to be with God? And why are we unfit? Not so much because of what we put into ourselves but because of the ‘evil things’ that come out of ourselves, all those destructive impulses, like greed, envy, slander (Mark 7.15, 23).
‘If being impure worries you,’ says Jesus ‘(and it should), don’t look at your table manners, look into your heart: that’s where the well-springs of our problems lie.’ And in that respect the poorest and the richest are on the same level. This is democratic religion.
And so to us. We are no more fit to be with God than were our spiritual ancestors, but Jesus has a special welcome for the unfit, so here we are, the latest of Jesus’ unfit friends. Being religious, we have our rituals too, but do they work as invitations, or barriers? You be the judges. Followers of Jesus are called to be different, sometimes unpopularly different, yet it must be a difference which is – paradoxically – open to anyone, wherever they live, whatever their life, anyone who wants to open their heart to God. Any other kind of differentness, however beautiful and religious, and God will say, as Jesus does,
This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me. (Mark 7.6-7, quoting Isaiah 29.13)
One of our rituals is Baptism; and, earlier today, we baptised James and Arthur and Nicole. ‘Baptise’ is a technical, churchy term, originally from an everyday Greek word, which simply means ‘wash’. Mark uses that very word when he describes Jesus criticising the super-religious people washing – ‘baptising’! – their pots and pans (Mark 7.4). This picture of people purifying this stuff whenever they use it suggests a kind of anxiety – ‘If I keep doing these religious actions then I might be OK with God’ – and it’s an instinct you may know, seeing faith as a transaction: ‘If I go to church often, and pray lots, then God will be good to me in return. And if I don’t…’
By contrast, our baptism, our ritual washing, happens just once in a lifetime. There’s a real confidence in that. God longs to give each of us a clean heart, to wash away all that fouls up our lives, and we act that out in baptism; but we only need to do it once, because God always longs to do these things for us, and needs no reminders. We need to remind ourselves, though, so one of the first things we do in this service is to say the Confession. It’s a weekly expression of something each of us needs to do at least once every twenty-four hours: to come to a place of stillness, to take a moment to remember all the stuff that’s gone wrong, and ask for God’s forgiveness.
We come, footsore and filthy from wandering in ‘the wilderness of this world’s temptations’, and we can be confident that God is waiting for us, with bowl and towel (like Jesus at the last supper), and an invitation: ‘Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.’ Saying Yes to that invitation again and again as life goes by, that will change us. In the words the priest says in response to the Confession, it will help make our lives ‘pure and holy.’
Jesus at the Last Supper In the version in John’s gospel, he washes the disciples’ feet (John 13.1-5).
The wilderness of this world’s temptations The phrase is from the liturgy for the Ordination of Priests:
Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.