We begin yet another Sunday and today yet another September month, listening to the Gospel according to Mark – and once again the Pharisees are grumbling. Doesn’t it seem like they were always grumbling? Always upset, always in bad mood, always complaining, always trying to keep the stiff upper lip and keeping appearance? Always being like this grumpy old aunt, who always ruins the day or the family dinner with her relentless complaints, concerns, bad mood.
The Pharisees were grumbling again and of all the things they could be concerned about, they were upset that the disciples of Jesus weren’t washing their hands before they sat down for dinner! As I read the Gospel earlier this week, I could hear my mother-in-law consistently asking our boys of 17 and 20 on our recent visit to Denmark: “Did you wash your hands? Go wash your hands before lunch, dinner or coffee.” (And we did hear this a lot as we did sit at quite many tables during our visit….)
Well, - I am sure our two young men are completely capable of washing their hands and keeping good hygiene and having good manners at the table. And I do remember as they were growing up that I many times asked this question, as I asked if they did their homework, brushed their teeth, cleaned their room or carried out trash. And maybe their grandmother forgot how old they really are…. But….
At first glance it might seem strange that a religious leader asks questions so petty as to washing hands? But then again: it is not a question about hygiene, but it is all about appearance and religious traditions and rules. The grumbling Pharisees were always worried that Jesus and his followers were breaking rules and traditions: working and doing good on Sundays, speaking to women, touching lepers, eating with tax collectors. All about appearance, religious concerns about breaking rules as far more important that being a good human being, having a compassionate heart and loving caring hands.
As we once again meet the grumbling Pharisees of rules and regulations, righteousness and fear, - we also - thank God – meet the gentle Savior of compassion and care, grace and faith. And it makes a world of difference which eyes lay upon you: the rigorous righteousness or the compassionate graceful. The difference between people honoring God with their lips, appearances, rules and creeds, and the people honoring God with their hearts, hands and deeds.
Jesus turns things upside down once again. Using the rigid interpretation of these religious human rules to teach the crowd and remind us all that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
Oh, and we do know about all the not healthy choices that we eat and indulge in: cholesterol, calories, fat, sugar, tobacco, alcohol etc.
But in our health obsessed time and age, our regiment of exercise, diets and abstinence, - we seem to forget all the nasty germs and words that comes out of us in terms of our behavior and talk. Jess recites a long list of all the nasty sins that can come out of our hearts and defile us: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, wickedness, deceit, envy, slander, pride…….
This reminds me of a wonderful old Jewish tale about a great wise rabbi who was asked by a young man, how he could become a rabbi himself. It was wintertime then, and the Old Rabbi stood at the window looking out on the surrounding fields. The young man said: “I always dress in spotless white like the sages of old I never drink any alcoholic beverages, only water ever passes my lips. Also, I live a plan and humble and simple life. I have sharp edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also, daily, I receive forty lashes on my bare back to complete my penance!”
As the young man spoke, a beautiful white horse was led across the yard and into the fields. It was led to the water where it drank and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do.
“Just look,” the old rabbi said” That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but pure water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse???”
In the reading from James today, the truth was revealed: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceit themselves.”
Well, which is more important: what goes into us or what comes out of us? Which defines us more: our outside behavior or our inside motivations?
Which is most important in our religious life: creeds or deeds?
The grumbling Pharisees were constantly concerned about the creeds, the appearances, the rules and the traditions – and thus leaving no room for the unexpected encounter, the daring deeds, the caring heart and the compassionate need of the moment.
And as the old prophet Isaiah rightly said about hypocrisy:” This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
So, getting back to the question to our boys if they remembered to wash their hands before sitting at the table, I am happy to say that they did, but I me even more happy to say that they have caring good hearts and offer their help when needed.
Because what is most important?
Which would you prefer?
Which would you prefer for a next-door neighbor: a person of excellent habits and rules or a person with a good heart and helping hands?
Which would you prefer for a good friend: a person of excellent habits and spotless appearances, or a person with a good heart and helping hands?
Which would you prefer for a husband or a wife: a person of excellent habits, spotless appearances or a person with a good heart and caring hands?
When Jesus once was asked by a young eager man, filled with righteousness and the desire to live a spotless, pure and dignified life: “How do I inherit eternal life… what do I do to be in good standing with God? ‘
Jesus did tell the story about the Good Samaritan, who even if he was not considered to be a righteous man, a religious esteemed man or a part of the good club, - he became the one to imitate. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said.
He did not say; Go and think likewise. God and worship likewise. Go and confess your faith likewise.
Instead Jesus said, and he did himself:
Do this. Draw close. Show mercy. Extend kindness. Live out your theology in hands-on care for other people. Don't just think love.
By Debbie Thomas wrote in a Lectionary about the Good Samaritan:
“Somehow, someday, somewhere, it will. In a hospital room? At a graveside? After a marriage fails? When a cherished job goes bust? After the storm, the betrayal, the war, the injury, the diagnosis? Somehow, someday, somewhere. For all of us. It will happen.
When it does, it won't be your theology that saves you. It won't be your cherished affiliations that matter. All that matters will be how quickly you swallow your pride and grab hold of that hand you hoped never to touch. How humbly you'll agree to receive help from the enemy you fear. How long you'll persist in the Lone Ranger fantasy we all cling to before you allow an unsavory Other to bless you.
"Who is my neighbor?" the lawyer asked. Your neighbor is the one who scandalizes you with compassion, Jesus answered. Your neighbor is the one who upends all the entrenched categories and shocks you with a fresh face of God. Your neighbor is the one who mercifully steps over the ancient, bloodied line separating "us" from "them," and teaches you the real meaning of "Good."
What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Do this. Do this and you will live.”