The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Reading: Mark 7:24-37
For our Gospel reading this year, year B in the lectionary, we have been reading through St Mark’s Gospel. We paused our reading of St Mark’s Gospel when we got to the feeding of the 5,000. For five weeks over the Summer, we read instead the account of the feeding and of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum following it in St John’s Gospel, chapter 6. We have now returned to St Marks Gospel, and last week picked up St Mark’s narrative in chapter 7.
At the end of chapter 6 St Mark’s Gospel, immediately after St Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, St Mark tells us that Jesus is attracting considerable attention (Mark 6:54-56). Everywhere he goes people rush to see him. The reason for their interest in him is that they want to bring the sick to him for him to heal them. This reason for their interest in Jesus is understandable but it is limited. The crowds are not so much interested in Jesus as in what he can do for them and what they can get out of him. Jesus still meets their needs, but this is not what he wants from them. Our Gospel reading this week shows us the response Jesus is looking for.
In chapter 7, St Mark tells us that as well as becoming popular as a healer, Jesus is causing controversy and making enemies. Ironically, the opposition to Jesus comes principally from the religious leaders and those in authority. Here, in chapter 7, the opposition is from the Pharisees and scribes. They were people who placed a great deal of emphasis on God's Law and on keeping God’s commandments. St Mark, earlier in his Gospel, has described how Jesus has already had arguments with them over the sabbath commandment and over who has the authority to forgive sins. Jesus has claimed for himself the authority to interpret God’s Law and to forgive sins. In chapter 7, we see how Jesus uses this authority in a way that may not seem such a big deal to us, but which was both revolutionary and shocking in Jesus’ own day.
The argument between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes begins with the Pharisees and scribes asking Jesus why his disciples do not observe the ‘tradition of the elders’ (Mark 7:5). Nowadays, when we hear the word ‘tradition’, we tend to react negatively to it. We see tradition as being about binding us to the past and limiting what we can do in the present. This is not how tradition has always been seen, and it certainly was not how the Pharisees and scribes saw it.
Tradition, for the Pharisees and scribes, contained guidance and teaching on how God’s Law was to be interpreted and observed. Tradition had authority and was to be respected. Tradition not only contained guidance on, for example, how to keep the Sabbath, but on every aspect of everyday life. It included rules and rituals that needed to be followed. These applied to everything from eating a meal to going to the Temple to pray.
The argument, in chapter 7, centres on what rules and rituals should be followed when preparing and eating food. St Mark writes that the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly. We know all about washing our hands ‘properly’ at the moment because of the pandemic. Properly for the Pharisees and scribes, however, doesn't mean in the right way hygienically, but in the right way religiously. There was a religious way of washing hands before meals, and not only hands, but also the pots and pans the meal was prepared in and the places where it was eaten.
Now this was all done sincerely and out of a desire to keep God's Law. The desire to get the rituals right came out of a desire to demonstrate obedience to God’s Law. It often led, however, to a focus on external acts and what people did outwardly at the expense of the inner motivation and obedience that the rituals were meant to reflect.
By focusing on the rules and rituals, the Pharisees and scribes had forgotten that the whole point of the rules and rituals was to lead people to a greater obedience to God and to his Law. The point of the ritual was not the ritual itself, but what it expressed. Unfortunately, all too often with ritual, the original meaning of the ritual is lost in the desire to make sure the ritual is observed. Hence, the phrase ‘empty ritual’. The rituals that the Pharisees and scribes observed were originally intended as a way for the people of Israel to worship and express their faithfulness to God. These rituals had, however, been elevated to the same status as the commandments of God.
This was certainly how Jesus saw these rituals about ‘washing’ that the Pharisees and scribes were so concerned about. What originally had been meant to express love and devotion to God had become something that was done without much thought being given to it.
Imagine for a moment a couple falling in love. Every month they go to a certain restaurant for a meal together. He always buys her a flower. This ‘lovers’ ritual’ continues long after they have met. After several years, though, it becomes just a routine that they go through. This is how Jesus saw the rituals his disciples were criticized for not keeping, but which the Pharisees and scribes saw as so important. Quoting the prophet Isaiah to describe the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus says:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ (Mark 7:6-7; see Isaiah 29:13)
The Pharisees and scribes believed that failure to keep these rituals defiled a person, that is, made them unfit to come into the presence of God. It excluded them. Jesus tackles this head on. It is not failure to observe outward rituals that defile a person, Jesus tells them, nor even what a person eats. Nothing, says Jesus, going into a person from outside them can defile a person. The issue is what comes from within. And Jesus gives quite a comprehensive list of the unclean things that come from within, and which defile a person. The list includes theft, murder, and sexual sin, but it also includes evil thoughts, envy, and pride. Dealing with these unclean things, says Jesus, is far more important than how you wash your hands ritually.
Somewhat buried away in all this, is what, in English, is a six word comment by St Mark on what Jesus’ words mean. St Mark writes:
‘Thus he declared all foods clean.’ (Mark 7:19)
For many of St Mark’s original audience, these words would have come as something of a verbal bombshell. This idea of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ food is one we find hard to understand today. We understand the idea of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food. And we know that some people, for various reasons, prefer not to eat meat at all. ‘Clean’ and ‘unclean’, however, is a religious concept. The Jews divided food into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ categories – they still do – and unclean food was, and is, not to be eaten. We are all familiar with the concept of ‘kosher’. Kosher refers to the right food prepared the right way.
Jesus’ implied abolition of this concept was revolutionary. Again, we don't get today just how emotionally shocking was the idea that it did not matter what you ate. Jews, during the period of the Maccabees, for example, had been prepared to die rather than eat pork. Indeed, this was an issue that was to cause a great deal of controversy in the Early Church itself.
The question for believers in the Early Church was, ‘Should Gentiles who became believers be required to keep the rules about food in God's Law?’ St Mark clearly was on the side of those who thought they shouldn't. St Paul took a remarkably liberal view for someone who had been a strict Jew. St Paul taught that it was up to the individual to decide for themselves before God whether they observed them or not (Romans 14:1-9). St Paul himself agreed with St Mark that all foods were clean, but, as believers, he felt that we should respect each other’s choice in the matter. At the same time, St Paul believed this was a two-way process. Those who thought some foods unclean should respect those who believed that all foods were clean. But equally, those who thought that all foods were clean should respect those who believed that some were unclean.
But does it matter? Well, it did and it does. It is only a small move from thinking that some food is unclean to thinking that the people who eat it are also unclean. What follows next is the belief that not only should you yourself not eat unclean food, but that you shouldn't meet or associate with those who eat it either.
St Paul bluntly tells believers in Rome, who were dividing into groups based on whether they only ate clean food or ate all food, that they were to ‘welcome one another’ (Romans 15:7). What they believed about the food they ate was not to be a defining issue. What counts, St Paul writes, is glorifying God and loving each other.
This was something that the Pharisees and scribes found difficult to understand. For them, not eating unclean food was about obeying God. It was a lesson that even St Peter himself had to learn, and it wasn’t an easy one for him to learn. It took a vision from God, repeated three times, to get the message across to him, and this was after he had been with Jesus for three years.
The story is a well-known one. It is told by St Luke in Acts, chapter 10.
St Peter, St Luke tells us, is on the roof of a house in Joppa, praying at midday. He feels hungry and falls into a trance. While in the trance, Peter receives a vison of a sheet being let down from heaven with all kinds of animals on it. A voice tells him to get up, kill, and eat. Peter refuses, responding that he has never eaten anything unclean. The voice replies:
‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ (Acts 10:15)
This happens three times.
Peter is puzzled by the vision and doesn’t quite know what to make of it. At that moment, some men come from Caesarea who have been sent by a Roman Centurion, a Gentile called Cornelius. Cornelius has himself been told in a vision to send for Peter and has been given the directions for finding him. The Holy Spirit tells Peter that he must not hesitate to go with the men for the Holy Spirit has sent them. What Peter says to Cornelius and his household when he arrives at Caesarea is particularly interesting. Peter’s words are:
‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’ (Acts 10:28)
Peter understands that his vision was not simply about which food he should find acceptable, but also which people. If a person is acceptable to God, they must also be acceptable to Peter and to the Church. Not only is Peter not to call any food unclean and, therefore, not fit to eat, Peter must not see anyone whom God has called to himself as unclean and unacceptable to God either. God goes on to show Peter how people Peter previously thought to be unclean are now called by God to faith in Christ. As Peter is telling Cornelius and his household about Jesus, God baptizes Cornelius and his household there and then with the Holy Spirit in the same way as Peter and his fellow believers were themselves baptized in the Holy Spirit.
Which brings us at long last to our Gospel reading this week. Jesus is in Tyre, a port on the Mediterranean Sea, northwest of Galilee. A Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin approaches him. The woman has a little daughter who has an ‘unclean’ spirit. She begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. Jesus’ response to her request is somewhat shocking: he refuses. Jesus says to her:
‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ (Mark 7:27)
Jesus effectively tells the woman she is a bitch who doesn’t deserve to be fed. Preachers often try to soften Jesus’ words by arguing that Jesus is trying to test her or lead her to faith. We respond like this to Jesus’ words because we don't take seriously the fact that the Jews were and are God's people and that Jesus originally ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11). It is only after Jesus’ death and resurrection that salvation will be offered to the Gentiles as well. This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘Let the children be fed first’.
The woman in her reply doesn't dispute this. But even though it is the children's time to be fed, the ‘dogs’ can still eat the ‘children’s crumbs’. The time is coming, however, when those who are regarded as no better than dogs will themselves become children and eat at the same table as those who were originally God’s children. But that time is not yet. Jesus, however, by effectively announcing that all food is clean, also points to the day, which is coming soon, when all people will be clean.
We must not minimise the historical significance of this. Jesus came to God’s people the Jews. He came for the world, but he didn’t come to the world; he ‘came to his own’. God sent him first to those he had himself chosen and had separated from all other people. The laws the Pharisees and scribes sought to keep were God’s laws given by God himself, and while the Pharisees and scribes had wrongly interpreted them, and had missed the point of many of them, they were still God's laws.
What God has done in Christ, however, is to end his own Law, and, in ending it, has welcomed all people who trust in his Son into his family. This was both huge and controversial then and it still is today. Only recently, Pope Francis, no less, got into a lot of trouble for saying something similar. Can you imagine how much more trouble St Peter and St Paul got into for saying it? Indeed, St Peter after his visit to Cornelius’ household is called to give an account of his actions to the Church in Jerusalem. Believers there are shocked that St Peter has met with Gentiles and has eaten with them (Acts 11:1-18).
St Luke tells us that those who heard St Peter’s explanation ‘glorified God’ when they heard it (Acts 11:18), but we know that it took them a lot longer to accept and come to terms with it. We learn from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians that even St Peter himself took time to understand its implications completely. What to us today now seems obvious was to be a major source of controversy and division in the Early Church. We see this controversy and division reflected in some of St Paul’s letters.
While today we don’t decide whether someone is acceptable to God based on whether they are a Jew or Gentile. We do still, mentally at least, divide people into clean and unclean groups, that is, into groups composed of those who are welcome to join us and those who are not. We know only too well, for example, that racism in the Church has led to people of certain races being discriminated against and excluded from the Church.
I think the Church today has recognized this, in theory at least. Most churches now go out of their way to be seen to be inclusive and welcoming. However, in their enthusiasm to be inclusive and welcoming, they often end up distorting the message of the Gospel. The Gospel tells us that all are included in the Gospel invitation and that all are welcome to respond. But while we are invited to come as we are, we are not welcome to stay as we are. St Peter, when speaking to Cornelius and his household, puts it this way:
‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’ (Acts 10:34-35)
But how are we to do what is right in order to be acceptable to him? Our problem is the problem that Jesus describes in St Mark, chapter 7. It is not external things that defile us; it is not about where we are born, our social background, and all the other things that are used to exclude people. It is what we are in ourselves that is the problem. ‘Out of the heart’ of each one of us comes what it is that defiles and excludes us. We come to Jesus as people who are defiled by who we are and by what is in us, and Jesus invites us as defiled sinners. But if we want to go on with Jesus, we need to be cleansed from our defilement.
This is a message that the Church, in its understandable desire to be inclusive, has, both consciously and unconsciously, decided to ignore. The Pharisees and scribes were too exclusive in their approach; we have become too inclusive in ours. It's not that we should exclude anyone from coming, but that anyone who does not respond to the Gospel in the way Jesus says they must, excludes themself. In Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), one of the many who were invited did not wear the right clothes and was thrown out.
The Gospel invitation and welcome is to all people, but it is an invitation and welcome, not only to come, but also to change. St John writes:
‘If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 John 1:6-7)
No one is unclean in the sense of being excluded from the invitation that God offers in Christ. But we are all defiled, and in need of the cleansing blood of Christ, so that we can become acceptable in his sight. We need to be washed, cleansed by his blood, and set free from the things that defile us, so that we can begin a new life in the power of his Spirit. This is the message that we have been thinking about over the Summer as we looked at Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. It is only Christ’s body and blood that makes it possible for us to come into God's presence and which enables us to stay there.
The message that Jesus invites us to come to him and to be changed by him because all of us are not acceptable to God as we are and are incapable of doing anything about it, is not a message we welcome. We want both to come as we are and to stay as we are. And even if some change is needed, we want some say in how we change and to be given credit for doing so.
This is why, like the Pharisees and scribes, we like rules and rituals. They give us a feeling of control and of superiority. Control, because we get to do something worthy of praise; superiority, because we feel we are better than those who don't keep the rules and rituals. Rules and rituals give us something to boast about. More than that, our rules and rituals also let us take control of who is and who is not acceptable. Even when the rules and rituals are God’s, we want to be the ones who enforce and interpret them. Often our interpretations are just that: our interpretations.
In her desperation and need, the Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus with an open heart and on Jesus’ terms. The Pharisees and scribes insisted that he come to them on theirs. She accepted that she had no right to Jesus’ help, but, relying on his generosity, was grateful for his mercy. The Pharisees and scribes thought they needed no help, but, relying on their rules and rituals, trusted their own judgement. Jesus came unto his own, but his own received him not.
Jesus told those who were gathered in the synagogue in Capernaum that he was the ‘bread of life’ (John 6:35). Unwilling to admit their need, God’s own children rejected all that he offered them. The Syrophoenician woman, knowing her need, was happy to receive any crumbs that fell from the children's table.
Today, Christ doesn’t offer us crumbs, but his very self. To all who now receive him, who eat his flesh and drink his blood, he gives the power to become children of God.
May we, then, by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, receive the eternal life he promises to all who believe in him and may we welcome as bothers and sisters all those who also believe – whoever they are.
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