Preacher Revd Neil Summers
If you look at the front of today’s pew sheet, you will see that the compilers of our lectionary – the CofE’s reading scheme – take a pair of scissors to Mark 7, by choosing three short sections – verses 1-8; 14-15; 21-23 – with the intervening two sections in the passage omitted. If you’re intrigued, you can always look them up when you get home! Admittedly, the first omission does cover a rather obscure matter, the concept of Corban (not Corbyn!), which we don’t have time to look at today. The second one, though, is rather more surprising, because it is where we hear the Gospel writer tells us that Jesus declared all foods to be clean. That is a bit like lobbing a hand grenade to blow out of the water the detailed and complex dietary laws outlined in the Book of Leviticus. If you check them out, you will see, for instance, that while it was all right to eat bald locusts, you couldn’t eat bats; you could eat grasshoppers, but you couldn’t eat geckos. There’s much more where that came from. Personally, I’m not sure I’d fancy eating any of them. We should note, though, that these rules, bizarre as some of them may seem to us, were originally intended to mark out Israel as a distinctive people, a people God had made a covenant with, and thereby an embodiment of God’s justice, and a witness to the surrounding nations.
Centuries later, today’s Gospel writer relates this account as one of a number of occasions where Jesus runs into opposition with the religious authorities of his day – those who wished to tie down, to point out the error, to create league tables of righteousness, to create a set of moral imperatives which all seem far removed from the picture of God revealed in the ministry of Jesus. They don’t recognise that Jesus himself is now the embodiment of God’s justice, meaning that the earlier, very prescriptive, rules are no longer required. While the religious leaders are obsessed by finding the sin, the infringement of the rule, what Jesus seems to be advocating is a wholly new approach transcending detailed rules and regulations, and focusing instead on transforming lives. There is someone here greater even than Moses, and yet the religious professionals have homed in on the fact that Jesus’s disciples have not followed the correct rites of purification and are eating with dirty or – in their terms – ‘defiled’ hands. Jesus names this hypocrisy for what it is: it is following the religious code to the letter, a code that had many prescribed rules for cleansing of hands and food, and of cups, pots and bronze kettles – all of which were eminently sensible requirements for a pilgrim people: today’s health and safety culture would be proud of them. But see how these traditions out of context have become confused with the will of God: ‘In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ They have become the means by which religion exercises power and control.
By contrast, Jesus’s new approach to his tradition is not one that constricts, but rather one that sets people free. Humanity first, rules and regulations second. No doubt Mark’s comments were for the benefit of his readers in Rome, who were wondering if they still needed to keep such rules. The question, which dogged the early Church, of what to keep and what to jettison from the Hebrew Scriptures, has never really gone away. It still underlies some of the issues we differ on in the 21st century Church, not least gender roles and human sexuality. But Mark makes us face it. More fundamentally still, he forces us to re-examine the foundations of our moral judgements. Verses from Leviticus still get trotted out to justify moral positions today, quite ignoring the totally different context we inhabit 2000 years or more down the line.
Many of the Gospel stories tell of Jesus reinterpreting his tradition. That is too much for the religious authorities to stomach, for it challenges the basis on which they exercise their power and control. This confrontation would, of course, eventually lead to Jesus’s death. It is as though the religious professionals do not want to see the transformation he brings to enable human beings to flourish; their eyes are focused on the rulebook, too preoccupied with nit-picking.
We can all find religious arguments and scriptural texts to support our own point of view and our position. Indeed, it has often been said that just about any position can be justified by appealing to a passage of Scripture. The problem here is that the biblical quote often gets taken in isolation, divorced from its original context. This could put us at risk of missing attentiveness to the things that are of God, and that are truly life-giving. Do we recognise those things deep within us which do defile because they allow no space for the life of God to grow within us? This deeper integrity is not about a holiness code where we compete to be the most self-righteous. It is actually about an integrity which acknowledges that all of us have swallowed the toxins of our world, fallen short of the fullness of the life God longs for us, and need God’s healing and grace right at the very core of our being. Jesus himself did not create doctrines of redemption; he offered his disciples a journey of steadfast love and faith, albeit through pain and struggle, into the mystery of that which is eternal, and he called them to come with him.
In his challenging autobiography Leaving Alexandria, Richard Holloway, former Primus of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, writes that religious institutions can often over-claim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. Religion shifts, he says, from poetry to packaging, from vision to rules of containment. It is a salient reminder to us that religion, which at its best contributes towards building people up, can all too easily become destructive, even dangerous, when its real heart is at risk of being lost.
Today’s passage from the Letter of James makes it clear: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.’ Add to them migrants fleeing conflict, danger and poverty; those persecuted today for daring to be followers of Jesus; and all those who are at risk of abuse, or have been abused, in a whole host of ways; and those who are trafficked into destructive lifestyles. God knows there are many in our world who are orphaned and distressed today. The Jesus approach leads us to believe their plight demands a generous and compassionate heart, not a religious rulebook. And the same goes for us, too.