Sunday, September 2, 2018

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Pure and undefiled

It seems to be easy these days to call people names, to point fingers, and tell others that they are wrong. I won’t itemize all the places and ways in which finger-pointing happens, but you all know about it.  I admit I have done some finger-pointing myself.

Finger-pointing and telling others that they are wrong is not a new activity. The Bible is full of such stories, especially when the prophets tell the priests and the people they need to shape up. And, naturally, the people and the priests point right back.

When God was speaking with Moses and establishing the relationship between God and people, God said here are a few basic rules for you to live by. The next Chapter outlines them: put God first, worship often, respect each other and be kind to one another. Those rules, the Ten Commandments, that began so simply became lists and lists of details, depending on the circumstances.

The expanded rules were an attempt to be fair to all, and still to keep God front and center. By Jesus’ time, there were 613 commandments, and written and unwritten rules about how to live them out.

The priests and rabbis knew most of them. The Pharisees were the ones who studied the laws and knew them well. It was their belief that by obeying the laws, they would be honoring God. Those who intentionally disobeyed the laws were dishonoring God and caused those present to be similarly guilty.

The laws about handwashing were intended for priests, but had recently been extended to the general population because they were easy enough for most people to do. In this passage from Mark, the Pharisees who are pointing fingers have noticed that some, though not all, of Jesus’ disciples have not washed their hands.

The Pharisees are highlighting anything they can about Jesus to make him seem less appealing. They don’t all wash their hands; they eat grain on the sabbath; they ask for healing on the sabbath. He is an evil-doer and the people should have nothing to do with him.

And Jesus points fingers right back. He comments that the outward actions of people, such as handwashing before meals, is not important. What is important is the motivation that come from the heart.

The Pharisees and the scribes and Jesus all use the word “defile”. It means to make something lose its purity. There are secular uses for the word. When waste is dumped into a river, we say it has been defiled.

Here in the Gospel reading, defilement is used only in a religious sense. Only the pure could enter the temple, so rituals were designed to create and preserve purity. Women during their monthly bleeding were not pure, so they had ritual bathing to purify themselves. Without it, the men would become defiled. Lepers had imperfect skin, so they were defiled, and the defilement was contagious. Those who touched them would also become defiled.

It’s not quite the same today, but we still have a sense of defilement in the church. For some people, writing in a Bible defiles it. For some people, women in the pulpit and behind the altar defile the pulpit and altar. When vandals enter and use spray paint to write hate words, the space feels defiled. … It is not the action itself which defiles but the way our hearts respond to the action.

The Pharisees who were pointing fingers at Jesus and the disciples were looking at the outward actions and not at the heart. They were not looking at the hearts of Jesus and the disciples, nor were they looking at their own hearts.

These days, we seem to have been granted permission to look only at outward actions and not at the hearts of many people. And we have been told it is OK to speak our thoughts, pointing fingers and hurtful words anywhere we want to. We are right, and we want what we want, and the “Other Guy or Gal” who disagrees with us is just wrong. We too easily think of the other person as defiled. But when we do that, we defile ourselves, too, don’t we?

Let’s turn the topic in a slightly different direction for a moment. When we really stop and think about ourselves, we tend to think of ourselves as defiled. We know what goes on in our hearts, and it is not always pure. God does not always come first in our lives. We don’t always worship with our whole hearts. We don’t always respect other people, and we are not always kind. We don’t always think of other persons as God’s beloved. Indeed, we view some people as truly defiled, even though we know we shouldn’t.

It is a relief to remember that Jesus doesn’t see anyone as defiled. Sinful, in need of forgiveness, surely. But through Jesus’ eyes, we are all pure and undefiled. You are pure and undefiled. And even those whom we prefer to think of as defiled and unworthy of God’s love, in Jesus’ eyes, they, too, are pure and undefiled.

We all have automatic responses to certain people; if we pay attention, we recognize our responses as unfair prejudices and don’t want them, but they happen. We respond with thoughts of defilement to some politicians, some family members, addicts, beggars, undocumented immigrants, criminals, those of other faiths, and so forth. Our minds tell us someone or some group is defiled.  

Yet, I challenge you, when you are tempted to think of someone as defiled, to remember that God’s love is unconditional. Try to disconnect their actions from their true selves as one of God’s beloved children. Try to imagine what is in their hearts, and grant them some grace. And try to remember that you, too, are pure, undefiled, forgiven, and loved unconditionally.