Wash your hands (or don't)

Mark 7:1-30 tells us of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees, folks who are strict on following tradition, are trying to challenge Jesus on whether his disciples are following the correct traditions of the law. Jesus is not having any of it. He pushes back against traditions. It’s easy to follow traditions. What is not easy is following Jesus’ commands of purity, looking inwardly at our hearts.

Problem in the Text: Conflict between Jesus and Pharisees

We have followed Jesus and his disciples on a journey through Mark and now we are halfway through. Jesus’ ministry has reached a bit of a high point. Jesus has performed a lot of really great miracles, he’s becoming quite popular. Things are looking pretty positive.  

But then Jesus’ enemies arrive (again).

We know that this is not going to be a friendly debate between Jesus and the scribes when Mark writes “they have come from Jerusalem.” They’ve come from the political and religious capital. They’ve come from the place where people make rules about what’s good and what’s bad. They’ve come to “talk” with Jesus- it’s a bit like being sent to the principal’s office but instead, the principal has come to Jesus- even worse.

So along come the scribes and Pharisees and they are just WAITING to find something that Jesus is doing wrong- they don’t even want to give him a chance and AHA! They aren’t washing their hands!

It’s a bit petty. Is that all they can find? And rather than a gentle reminder “perhaps you should go wash your hands- be sure to use soap!” the Pharisees accuse the disciples of not living their entire lives after the tradition of the elders- just because of some unwashed hands.

Mark gives us a bit of background information here. Unlike the call for us to wash our hands this past year, the purpose is not about hygiene. It is about ceremonial purity. God wanted people to take part in these purity laws so that they were able to serve God through clean hands and a pure heart- this was especially important for the Old Testament priests. The Pharisees, who wanted to appear as though they were extremely pious, have adopted these laws for themselves and expanded them to include even more hand washing than was originally prescribed by the Old Testament law. The Pharisees thought that everyone should follow these laws as they did. Mark’s footnote is interesting as he says that “All the Jews” had adopted these laws but that’s certainly not true since Jesus’ disciples (who were Jewish) have not done that.

But the Pharisees want people to follow the law. They thought that if there was some way for one law to be broken, there is a possibility for all of them to be broken- and mayhem would ensue. They would make other laws to make a “fence” around the original law so the original law wouldn’t be broken. It helped them feel secure. These weren’t written down and instead became the “tradition of the elders.”

But that brings us back to the conflict. The Pharisees are pleased because they have caught Jesus’ disciples breaking a purity law and they think that they have them in a bind. But sassy Jesus isn’t having any of it.

He calls them hypocrites, quotes Scripture at them and gives them the example of the Corban law.

The Corban Law gives people the ability to dedicate a piece of land to “God.” So, in the example that Jesus is giving, a son has done that- dedicated a piece of his land to God- so that it is not to be used for anything else. But the son has parents who need his support in their old age- he does not use the land to support them since it is dedicated to “God.” Only the son can reap the benefits from the land.

How convenient.

This law was often abused for examples like this, leaving a law that was designed to bring Glory to God to instead bring glory to selfishness. Jesus says, “you people tell people the follow this ‘law,’ while others suffer from it. This is not the way of God.”

In other words, following tradition for the sake of tradition is not following God.

Problem in the World: Our ‘Laws’

The church has a lot of traditions. There are the traditions of the worldwide Church, traditions of the Anabaptist church, traditions of the Mennonite church and traditions here at Preston Mennonite Church. We, over time, have created our own rituals. They help us create a sense of identity- a sense of who we are. They help enhance our worship. They help us build our group identity. There are many good things that have come out of the tradition of the church. There were many good things that came out of the Jewish traditions of the elders.

But at some point, the traditions hinder the church rather than building it up. At some point, we get so entrenched in doing our traditions the way our people before us did them. At some point, we end up doing tradition just for the sake of tradition.

What dictates what we do on a Sunday morning? What dictates what committees we have? What dictates where we give our money to? Is it tradition? Is it a call from God?

Why do we follow the traditions we do?

Gospel in the Text: The Woman’s Faith

After Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, he continues to travel on. He explains to his disciples a lesson about purity and the digestive system: it doesn’t matter what goes in, it matters what comes out. Jesus is feeling a little tired, perhaps a little frustrated, and so he goes to Tyre- a place that he has not yet been. He enters into a house to get rest and a woman barges into his privacy.

This woman has three strikes against her before she even begins talking. She is Greek, so she is a Gentile and not Jewish. She is Syrophoenician, which means that she is a descendant of the Canaanites, the enemies of the Israelites. And she is a woman who has come, unaccompanied by a husband or a close male relative, to speak to a male stranger.

But she is a mother.

A mother who cares so deeply for her child who is suffering.

She pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter- she has put everything out on the table. Jesus responds with an insult, calling her a dog. This is a text that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like to think of Jesus as a rude person. Sure, we can cheer him on a little bit when he calls the Pharisees names. They are, after all, the bad guys of the story. But when this woman, this mother, comes humbling herself, putting herself in danger, shames herself to plead that Jesus would heal her daughter Jesus responds with an insult. That’s not the Jesus I like to think of.

There are a few different interpretations for this story, and I don’t really agree with any of them. One interpretation suggests that the word for “dog” that he uses actually means “puppy” which is more a term of endearment. Others say that Jesus was just “testing” her and that she passed the test with her response. Still others say that Jesus wasn’t testing the woman, he was testing his disciples who were probably around, responding first in a way that goes along with their tradition of believing that the Gentiles are bad. They might have been nodding along, thinking “Exactly, that fits with what I believe God’s kingdom is like”. Then Jesus turns that thinking upside down by doing what the woman asked for after all and the disciples are left wondering what they missed.

To me, these explanations still don’t make sense completely. After all, Jesus did insult a suffering, pleading outcast, and that’s not the understanding of Jesus I’m comfortable with.

Regardless, this story is a lesson to us in just how expansive God’s kingdom is. It’s a lesson about putting preconceived notions and traditions before the kingdom of God. This desperate woman pushes boundaries. She stretches our vision of what God’s grace could be. She shows us that there is room in God’s kingdom for all, for Jew and Gentile, for all genders, for slave and free, for insider and outsider, even for dogs.

Gospel in the World: Who are we Overlooking?

The Pharisees were in the wrong because they had put the traditions of their people over the ways that God was working in the world. The Syrophoenician woman teaches us that God’s kingdom is far more expansive than our traditions tell us. She shows us that strangers bring unexpected blessings and insights.

As we make our traditions and remain in the same traditions, our church becomes homogeneous. We tend to bring the same perspectives, share the same experiences and hold generally common assumptions about God, the world and our faith.

Mennonites love to be hospitable. But I know, for myself definitely, hospitality sometimes means being patient and polite while I wait for those that don’t think like me to come around to my way of thinking. There are times when my “hospitality” looks like my self-righteousness pretending I am doing a good thing by being patient while others learn “the right way to do things around here.”

That’s not hospitality. Hospitality is a willingness to be open to the gifts and perspectives of someone who is different. Hospitality is an openness to receiving people who are different from us as God-given gifts. Hospitality is welcoming people sent in our path to teach us about how to broaden the kingdom of God.

It is not just those on the ‘outside’ of the church. There are those among us whose voices are different than our own. Who are you overlooking? Who is a part of our church but does not often participate, does not sit at the centre, is not up here. If you are one of those people, may you have the courage of the Syrophoenician woman to speak up and teach us a little bit about broadening the Kingdom of God.

Our welcoming statement says:

We desire to be a welcoming, caring and affirming community of God’s people.

We meet to worship, support and challenge each other as we learn and grow in Christ’s love.

We extend God’s peace and justice in our surrounding community and to all creation.

We welcome people of any age, gender identity, social status, race, sexual orientation and ability.

We invite all to be part of our community and to join us on the journey of faith.

What this statement does NOT say is that we welcome all IF they become like us. What this statement does NOT say is that we welcome people, regardless of who they are, but we will speak about them behind their back. What this statement does NOT say is that we welcome those who are different that us, but expect them to do the things the way we do.

It says “We invite all to be a part of our community.” An equal part. One of us. An equal, contributing member- even if their hands are unwashed.

Our welcoming statement is a beautiful, beautiful statement of furthering God’s kingdom. Of allowing the kingdom of God to bring us congregational renewal. Renewal won’t come from figuring out which hymns to sing or what programs we want. Renewal will come when we look around us- to our households, schools, communities, the world and in our own church to discern who needs us, what they need to from us, and how we might be able to help them speak into our lives before God and the world.

The early church eventually learned that the traditions that them a part of their Jewish culture was not what made them a part of Jesus’ church.

May we do the same.

(but please, do wash your hands…)