Sermon for Proper 17, Year B
August 29, 2021
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 Psalm 15 James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words or activities performed as prescribed by the traditions of a community.
It is football season and next week the Razorbacks take the field. A Razorback football game has one primary ritual- calling the Hogs. If you are a fan (and you should be) you know the ritual. Three ‘Woo Pig Sooies’ ending with ‘Razorbacks’ after the third. The call is punctuated with raised arms and punched fists. And you better hold the ‘Woo’ for at least 5-10 seconds. Anything less or different, you have violated the ritual.
The first official call is made just before kickoff. Calls continue throughout the game at each subsequent kickoff or during times of celebration or when the team and the crowd need a lift. Ever think we should call the Hogs in church? After all Razorback football is a religion. Some prefer the Cathedral of Reynold Razorback Stadium. I happy to be partial to the Temple of War Memorial Stadium.
So, Jesus was becoming popular, really popular. And he had friends and followers. The Pharisees who followed every iota of the law and the scribes who wrote the rules and regulations paid Jesus a visit about his friends. His friends weren’t following the proper ritual- they were eating bread with unclean hands. Now, this isn’t when our moms and dads told us to wash our hands before we had dinner. This is a ritual cleansing not cleaning off the dirt of the neighborhood.
Per William Barclay it went something like this; the hands were already hygienically clean. This was a ritual cleaning, water from a large stone jar was used for this purpose and this purpose alone. The hands we held with fingertips pointing upwards, water was poured over them and the water had to run to the wrists. With the hands wet, the fist of one hand rubbed the palm and surface of the other. The clean water was now unclean because it had touched the unclean hands. The hands were then rinsed with water poured over the hands with the fingertips pointed downward. With this, a person’s hands were ritually clean.
What did it mean to be unclean? If something was unclean it was spiritually or morally impure and to be avoided. An object can be ceremonially unclean, a person can be ceremonially unclean. And if an object or person was considered unclean it was not fit for service and worship of God. If anyone came in contact with a person that was unclean, they were judged to be unclean as well. Who judged them to be this way? The Pharisees and their friends, the scribes. The scribes took the laws of Moses and the elders and wrote regulations about every possible action and situation in life. If you followed all of these rules and regulations, and there were hundreds, you were considered clean and in God’s favor.
The Pharisees held if you ate with unclean hands, you were unclean in the sight of God. And there was a price to pay for doing so. Anyone eating with unclean hand was subject to the attacks of a demon called Shibta. You might be liable to poverty and destruction. The bread you ate with your unclean hands was like consuming feces. A little worse than yelling ‘Roll Tide’ at a Razorback home game in Alabama.
Who was unclean? Certain animals; pigs, lobsters.Certain people, a woman after childbirth, a leper, someone who touches a dead person, non-Jews, Gentiles, were all unclean. Anyone or anything touched by these people became unclean. And if a person was unclean, a good Jew must avoid them at all costs. Being seen with someone judged unclean could raise suspicion about one’s cleanliness. So, um, Jesus, you might want to find some new friends if you want to be our friend too.
To the scribes and Pharisees, rules and regulations were the essence of their religion. Observe them, you please God. Break them, you might find yourself with a terrible, awful pie from God’s kitchen. This was the Pharisee’s idea of goodness and how to serve God. The Pharisees didn’t like Jesus and his friends because he seemed to have no use for their rules. It was either their way or the highway.
Jesus did not see service to God as a religion of ritual, ceremony, rules and regulations. Instead, he offered a relationship with a loving God based on loving everyone.
Jesus responded to the Pharisees and scribed by quoting the prophet Isaiah- honoring God with their lips but not with their heart- calling them hypocrites. The Pharisees saw honoring God as a legal relationship, a religion of rules and regulation, a set of correct acts and practices that made them good and righteous before God and man. How they treated others did not matter because they were doing what God required them to do.
I was blessed for many years to be part of a noon Bible study. We had many discussions about what it meant to be righteous. Were we hypocrites? What did it mean to love one’s neighbor? What were the basic rules and regulations we were to follow? Because without some rules and regulations everyone might think they are welcome. One week we made a list of the Sunday ritual for our Christian small town.
- Dress in high fashion for church. Check.
- Bring Bibles. Check.
- Go to Sunday School. Check.
- Go to worship. Check.
- Go eat catfish after church in our Sunday best. Check.
- Go home, nap, but don’t work in the yard. Check.
- Go to Sunday evening prayer service for bonus points. Check.
If you checked all the blanks, you were right with God. And if you didn’t? I can tell you about what happens if you mow your yard on a Sunday afternoon.
If their relationship with God is one of checking off boxes and following a list of rules and regulations, Jesus tells the Pharisees it is they that are unclean. It is not the rules they loyally obey or even the right food they eat, it is what is in their hearts. And what is in our heart, determines how we treat others. It is not the rules and regulations we create to follow that makes God love us. It is simply realizing that he already does. He loves us as we are. Remember God cannot love us more or less than he does at this moment, so we can just quit the rituals we practice to make God love us more. And if he loves us in this way our most important ritual is to love everyone. To God, no one is unclean. God loves all of us, unconditionally. God. Loves. All.
We often think that because Jesus called Pharisees hypocrites that they were enemies of God. They were not. It was just their zeal was misdirected they wanted to know God. They wanted to please God. When Jesus tried to show them a different way, they would not put their old ways aside. Jesus said God loved the unclean. The kingdom of God was open to tax collectors, fisher men, sex workers, adulterers as well as the Pharisees and scribes. Instead of a set of rules and regulations, he challenged them to open their heart to a different way. But their life was built on their rules, their place in society was assured by the observation. It was Jesus who had to come to their way of seeing things. Jesus who needed to change. They just had too much to lose. And if he didn’t, well they would make sure he is hushed, in one way or the other.
Many of us will resume on of our favorite rituals this Saturday. Some will call the hogs at the Cathedral of Reynolds Razorback Stadium, or maybe from their favorite pub. Maybe in our favorite recliner at home. Admit it, even in your home you will call the hogs at least once. Rituals, rules, regulations and ceremonies are all around us. We are participating in one today. Jesus presented the Pharisees with another option- loving God and loving their fellow man. He reminds the Pharisees that we are not righteous because of our correct acts and practices but what is in our thoughts and found in our hearts. Amen.