Sermon, October 9, 2005
College Baptist Church
Rev. Don Westblade
Worship With a Clean Heart
It is easy for us in the church to read the books of the New Testament, including the Gospel of Mark, as if they were timeless books full of application for the present and not that much connected with the particularities of the Jewish culture and the Old Testament laws that made life so much different in Jesus’ day than it is in 21st century America.
The Gospel of Mark is still alive with relevance for our modern life and circumstances, but a text like chapter 7 reminds us that Jesus was very involved with the questions of how the appearance of the long awaited Messiah of Judah should relate to the Law of Moses and the ongoing practices of the Jews to whom the Law had been given.
It was a very practical question that Paul had to face on his mission because he was commissioned to take the Good News of the fulfillment of the Jewish covenants out and proclaim it to non-Jews, to Gentiles. And not every Jew in Paul’s day agreed with Paul that Jewish practices like circumcision and kosher dietary practices and sabbath keeping should play a different role for Gentiles in the covenants from the role they played for Jews.
Some were insisting -- and it sounded very reasonable on the surface of it -- that God had made these promises to Jews and that therefore one had better belong to the Jews if one was going to benefit from these Jewish promises.
That wasn’t just a concern for Paul in his ministry and his letters. Mark appears in all likelihood to have been writing his Gospel for readers who lived in the city of Rome. And Rome was a Gentile city. So he also has to address the Pauline question: What place to the laws and traditions of the Jews have among Gentiles in Rome who want to be part of the kingdom that this Jewish Messiah, Jesus, was offering as the Good News of his Gospel?
Once more, Mark has three stories to tell to give his answer to that question: first, an exchange with the Pharisees, who object that Jesus’ disciples (in their words) “aren’t walking according tot he tradition of the Jewish elders; second a healing of the daughter of a Gentile woman from the Syrophoenician region of Tyre and Sidon; and third, a healing of a man from the Gentile region called the Decapolis, 10 cities on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee.
All three of these stories deal with the relationship of Jesus’ Jewishness to things that lie outside of the traditional boundaries of Jewish identity. And all three of these stories therefore deal with a competition between the traditional Jewish understanding of what is clean and holy and Jesus’ understanding of clean and holy worship. Even if the question of how our faith relates to the history of Judaism doesn’t exercise us much in our day to day thinking, the more fundamental question of how our lives and hearts and worship can be clean and holy will be a question that is of utmost importance to us if we live with any expectation of spending eternity in the presence of a holy God.
In the first section of ch. 7, Mark tells us about a dispute that the Pharisees have with Jesus and his disciples. We have met the Pharisees and the Scribes of the Jews on quite a few occasions already in Mark’s Gospel, and we’ve found them over and over again not to be very receptive at all to the preaching and the miracles of Jesus. Why not?
For one thing, the idea that this human son of a carpenter in Nazareth should be the Messiah they have been waiting for does not add up at all with their expectations of a royal Davidic king who was going to arise someday to restore the united kingdom and the power that the Jews had enjoyed 1000 years ago in their past.
For another -- and this is the source of the problem in ch. 7 -- Jesus doesn’t seem to be very obedient to what they understand to be the teaching of their scriptures. And he is leading other people, specifically his disciples, away from a right understanding of the Jewish scriptures and traditions, too. He’s a renegade Jew, and he’s a danger to society.
In 2:16, the scribes of the Pharisees took offense that Jesus would share table-fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. Jews weren’t supposed to do that. These people were unclean.
In 2:18 the people can’t understand why Jesus’ disciples didn’t practice fasting, because the Pharisees did, and even John’s disciples fasted. It was a sign of Jewish discipline and piety, and not to practice it was common and not befitting a prophet, let alone a Messiah.
In 2:24, the Pharisees take offense at Jesus for violating what their traditions said was permissible and not permissible to do to keep the Sabbath holy. His disciples were plucking grain, and that they understood to be work, and a violation of the Torah.
By ch.3, v.6, the Pharisees are so upset with the disruption of their traditions by Jesus that they have begun to take counsel with the bureaucrats of King Herod how they could destroy Jesus. For the Jewish powers that be, he’s a dangerous and disruptive man.
Now in ch.7, they’re registering their protests again. They’ve even brought some scribal authorities in, all the way up from Jerusalem, to look into the defiance of some of these disciples of Jesus who weren’t even going through the most basic ritual washing before they ate. You might expect that even Gentiles would wash their hands before supper!
But the central issue here for the Pharisees isn’t the cleanliness of hygiene. There might be some hygienic value in washing after you’ve been to the marketplace. But the point of washing as the Pharisees and their traditions had understood it was not just to cleanse themselves of dirt and germs (if they had even known what germs were); it was ritually to cleanse themselves from things that were not Jewish. Because their Law told them that not just dirt and certain animals and various bodily discharges were unclean but, also and mainly, things outside of Judaism were to be treated as unclean.
God had build an identity boundary around Judaism by means of circumcision and laws against intermarriage outside of the boundary and kosher laws and ritual practices. All of those identity markers in the Mosaic Torah were so successful that even three thousand years and more later it didn’t require national, geographic boundaries for Hitler to identify who the Jews were in his day. The Torah’s ritual boundaries did all the identifying work for him in whatever country he found them.
The work this boundary did in the history of Judaism was to build and to maintain a deeply felt and personally experienced picture in a social context of what the set-apartness of holiness and cleanliness was supposed to be like in the moral and spiritual context. Just like the sacrifices drew a picture of and prepared the Israelites for the ultimate sacrifice of the Lamb of God once and for all in Jesus, these ritual laws of remaining clean and unblemished by things outside of Judaism drew a picture of and prepared Israel -- and us in the church to follow -- for the holiness that is required to stand undestroyed in the presence of a holy God.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall stand in his holy place?” (Ps 24 asks, and answers:) “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
You can hear that ultimate aim of the Mosaic Law in Jesus list of those things that do defile and disqualify us from God’s holy presence: those things that issue from an impure heart (v.21-22), “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
But the Pharisees went the Torah one better. In order to make sure that they stayed a safe distance away from violating the Law, they constructed (what they called) a “hedge around the Law.” If the Law said stay 5 feet away from an unclean thing, they stayed 10 feet away. If the Law said not to travel more than a mile on the Sabbath, they said don’t travel more than 1000 steps. Sometimes the Law only told them what God wanted but not how God wanted them to do it, so the Pharisees constructed a growing and elaborately detailed tradition of how the Law’s intentions should be carried out in daily practice.
These are the traditions that Mark refers to in vv.3-4. A century or two after Jesus their growing body of oral interpretation got written down in a book called the Mishnah. And a few centuries after that even the written Mishnah had generated interpretations of its interpretations by the deliberations of the Rabbis, and these got written into a set of books about as complex as the U.S. Code called the Talmud.
Jesus’ criticism of these growing interpretations of the Pharisees was as harsh as his respect for the Law of Moses itself was deep. Look again at v.9: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your own tradition!”
It’s important to see what Jesus affirms and what Jesus rejects here, if we’re going to understand his view of Judaism first and then, more importantly, to understand what Judaism depicts for us: namely what Jesus defines as holiness. The Pharisees, he says in v.8, make the fatal mistake of leaving the commandment of God and holding instead to the tradition of men.
That’s one of the errors we spoke about last winter when we were defining our doctrine of the Word of God. We dare not put human traditions on an equal basis, let alone a higher basis, than the Word of God himself. Worse than our doctrine going astray, our understanding of holiness will suffer and we will find ourselves unclean and unqualified to ascend the holy hill of the Lord.
The example Jesus holds up for the Pharisees may have parallels in our own experience if we examine our habits and practices carefully. The Pharisees had a tradition that said if you dedicate something to God then that means no human is allowed to use it any more. So people who wanted to hold things back from their parents would declare those things dedicated to God, and that proved to be a convenient end run around the commandment to honor one’s father and mother.
Today we may not have Corban traditions by that name, but do we tell people we can’t come and do them some loving service right at this moment because this half hour of the day is dedicated to our Quiet Time? Do we tell the church that we can’t participate in its next activity because our tradition of family-time has to come first? And do we tell our family that we can’t participate in its next activity because our tradition of attending church has to come first? The point is not that these aren’t and shouldn’t be priorities. The point is that sometimes we use our claims about traditional priority as a legalistic excuse for not doing what we know we really ought to be doing if we listened to God with our hearts instead of our made-up rules.
And so Jesus quotes from the authority of the Old Testament which he always supports and respects, in this case the prophet Isaiah, in ch.29:
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
All this emphasis on washing turns out not to be clean worship but just the opposite. Holiness, Jesus says, is a matter of a heart that loves God and not self.
The context of that verse in Isaiah is significant, but we’ll return to it in just a moment after we’ve thought about how the two healings that follow this exchange with the Pharisees fit into Mark’s larger point.
In v.24, Jesus now travels away from some Jewish men who thought that the Judaism they had constructed for themselves would make them holy only to find themselves judged unclean by Jesus, to visit a house in a Gentile town of Phoenicia (in Lebanon) that was hostile to the Jews where he meets a non-Jewish woman who manages to take one of the traditions of the Pharisees that Jesus tries out on her and to outargue it so effectively that Jesus throws the unclean spirit out of her daughter.
This is a remarkable contrast, and I think Mark wants us to learn from it what a sharp contrast there is between the external show of the Pharisees that they called cleanness and the internal reality of this woman who falls at Jesus’ feet in v.25, just like another externally unclean woman with her flow of blood did in ch.5, to both of whom he gives the gift of cleanness.
From every criterion of the traditions of the Pharisees this woman is a picture of uncleanness. She’s female. She’s Gentile. She’s from Tyre that was legendary among the Jews for paganism. She’s not one of the children of Israel. She’s a Gentile dog. And so what would the Pharisees say? “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little mongrels.” The blessings of the covenants God made with our fathers belong to us, not to those unclean outsiders. Isn’t that what Moses said? Why else did Moses give us all those laws about keeping our identity firm?
And this ritually unclean outsider turns out to be a sharper exegete of the Law itself than its proud and educated teachers. Yes, the Law wanted to maintain an identity for Judaism, so that the Jewish people could draw an unmistakable and unambiguous picture in and through the Jews of what God wanted to do for all the peoples to the ends of the earth.
“Yes, Lord,” she answers, “but even the little puppies under the table eat the crumbs that come from the bread of the extended family.” The word she uses for “children” is not the term for biological, ethnic offspring that the Pharisees used in Jesus’ expression. It was a different term that remembered that the covenant with Abraham was not made just with his biological children but with all the members and slaves in his household who trusted the God of the covenant.
Her argument is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s in Rom 9 when he observed that “not all who are biologically descended from Israel belong to the true Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring. This means (he said in 9:8) that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”
Here is a Gentile woman who understands better than the Jewish teachers what the commandment of God actually says. Here is an outsider to the Jewish boundary whose unclean spirits are banished because she knows that Abraham was meant to be a blessing to all the nations, and that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, and that a contrite heart God will not despise. She understood that holiness of heart is a gift God gives to faith alone.
In v.14, Jesus had spoken the word of Judah’s creed to the Pharisees: Shema, O Israel. Hear and understand. The Lord your God is One Lord. And “there is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” That same gift of cleanness, and better yet of an ability to do what the Pharisees refused to do -- to Hear -- is given in the last of the three episodes to a man in the Gentile cities of the Decapolis on the other side of the Sea of Galilee from the Jews of Nazareth and Capernaum.
He heals him with some unclean fluid: his spittle is put on the man’s tongue. And with the Aramaic expression, Ephphatha, “be opened,” the man could hear, and speak. The blessings of Israel, up to and including its fundamental creed, the Shema, are gifts to a man just for coming to Jesus in trust and asking for healing. That is the path to holiness and cleanness before God. It is a gift of God, not a performance of human legalism and tradition. Our own righteousness is nothing but filthy rags in the eyes of God. But the gift of the perfect righteousness of Christ, the spotless Lamb, clothes us in utter cleanness.
But I don’t think that is Mark’s final word to us in ch. 7. His final word is a word from the prophet Isaiah that only begins with Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah 29. That quotation in 29:13 comes in a context where Isaiah describes a people just like the ones Mark finds Jesus ministering to (and just like the ones Mark in large part writes to in Rome and in Hillsdale): people who see Jesus feed 5000 people but wonder where the bread is going to come from out in the boat with Jesus; people who watch Jesus calm a storm but then wonder who it is who walks to them out on the water. Isaiah calls them “people who are in a spirit of deep sleep and blindness” in 29:10, a people who draw near and honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are still far away; people who fear their man-made rules more than they fear the commandment of God.
These are people, Isaiah says, who turn things upside down and think of their potter as if he were their clay. “Shall the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? He might as well have said, Shall the creatures say of him who formed it, “He is no intelligent Designer”?
Mark’s first readers, who felt their blindness painfully, and Mark’s modern readers, who still feel our blindness painfully in our desire for holiness, can take hope from Isaiah where Mark found his hope for us all.
To that same blinded people, Isaiah promised in 29:14, God says I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder!” And what are the specific wonders that Isaiah names? In 29:17, he names the first wonder: “Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest?” In 29:18, he names the second wonder: “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.”
What happened in Mark 7, just after the blindness of the Pharisees was exposed? Two wonders: a Gentile woman in Lebanon was turned into a fruitful field, and a deaf man in the Decapolis came to hear!
Mark is saying to us who despair of overcoming our blindness and our enslavement to traditions, and our unclean, outsider sense of unholiness that wonders can still come as gifts from the hand of God to simple faith.
“The LORD has declared today that you are a people for his treasured possession, as he has promised you, and that you are to keep all his commandments, and that he will set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that he has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised.”
The poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. Be exalted O God!