"Grace Be Damned" – Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, "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.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
I’m a rule-follower. I know what the rules are, I know who makes the rules, and I’ve thought I understood why they are made. Being a rule-follower has opened many doors in my lifetime.
My 34 years as a white, upper-middle-class, average intelligence heterosexual Christian American male who has followed the rules, stayed out of trouble, and minded my own business, has resulted thus far in a good job, an incredible wife, and healthy children all under the roof of a large home in a safe, white, middle-class neighborhood. And I earned it. I followed the rules, stayed out of trouble, and minded my own business. I played the game and so I get to enjoy my winnings.
Of course, there are some drawbacks to being a rule-follower. I’m a terribly boring person to be around; I don’t have any wild and crazy stories to bring to a party; and I’m pretty unlikely to go and do something ridiculous and entertaining. But the second, and more devastating drawback, is that my rule-following has left me with a sense of entitlement and a daily struggle to understand whether the grace of Jesus matters much in my life.
At least, that’s what was becoming more clear as I spent time wrestling with today’s gospel story.
Jesus and his disciples were gathering for a meal when the Pharisees (who were watching Jesus closely, looking for any slip-up that they could use to attack his credibility) noticed that some of Jesus’ motley crew of fishermen, tax collectors, laborers, and other various marginalized followers were not washing their hands before eating. They weren’t following the rules! Finally, the Pharisees had a charge against Jesus that would stick. The Pharisees from Jerusalem could certainly mount a smear campaign against a rabbi whose followers didn’t follow the rules their religious tradition had so prioritized.
Unfortunately for them, Jesus responds with a scathing commentary about their hypocritical habits and the ridiculousness of their rules. For all the Pharisees’ strict adherence to the religious rules, they failed to see that God had come to them as someone who refused to play the game, someone who refused to keep his nose clean, someone who refused to mind his own business when there was so much suffering in the world that others endured at the hands of the rule-makers.
God was doing incredible things for the people in the world who didn’t deserve it – the sick, the widows, the orphans, the outcasts, the prostitutes, the wicked, the smelly, the uneducated, the lazy, the über rich, the dirt poor. God, as evidenced by the ministry of Jesus, had definitively sided with those who refused to play the game as well as those who, by virtue of their birth in a specific time and place in history, lost the cosmic lottery and never even had a chance to play the game of worldly success, much less win.
I hate that scripture is full of verses like this–verses that point out the ridiculous entitlement issues of rule-followers like me. I am rarely willing to side with or speak up for the outcasts, the wicked, the smelly, the lazy, or anyone else who wasn’t playing by the same rules I was. These are people who have nothing to offer me in my pursuit of ease, luxury, safety, and comfort, which society (and culturally co-opted religion) tells me are the most important things in life.
I hate hearing Jesus say that the whole time I’ve been so focused on following the rules and pursuing success, he’s been doing amazing things for, with, and among people I’d worked hard to ignore or put down: people who were born with a different skin color or a different gender attraction; people born into a different income bracket or a rougher neighborhood; people born with bodies more susceptible to diseases of the flesh or the mind.
I’ve had countless opportunities to stand beside and speak up for people who need to hear the promise of grace, and I haven’t been able to share it because I didn’t want to risk anything. Just in the past week-and-a-half I can think of examples including the woman on the plane who, after hearing I was a pastor, asked me my thoughts about how all public school districts are teaching kids to be homosexuals. Or there’s my friend who is a police officer and regularly says disparaging remarks about African-Americans. Each time I mumbled something like, “Huh, well, I don’t know.”
Way too often I choose to say nothing. Why would I? I gotta play the game, keep my head down, be amicable, not challenge prejudices; or else I’d risk losing a friend, a parishioner, or even the esteem of a complete stranger on an airplane–each person I see as a measure of success in my life.
And of course I see my behavior impacting my children. The other day at bedtime in my big, beautiful house I have earned by keeping my head down, being amicable, and not challenging prejudices in myself or others, my youngest son was being his independent self. He had his own idea of what adventures he could embark instead of brushing his teeth. I was tired and in no mood to play along with his daydreaming and not listening, so I grabbed his arm, put my face in front of his, and shouted, “Just follow the rules!”
And there it was, my life’s philosophy laid bare.
Just follow the rules. Make my life easier by playing the same game I am. Keep your head down. Be nice. Suppress any desire to stand out or do your own thing. And don’t challenge my idea of right and wrong. Do that, and you too can be successful like me.
I will never forget those tears that fell from his blue eyes.
I think about those tears and I see the tears of countless youth contemplating suicide because they feel the weight of not fitting in at school.
I think about those tears and I see the tears of mothers whose black children were killed either by police officers who were taught to assume they were dangerous, or from other youth who, for a myriad of reasons, knew they would never be accepted by society, so they play the game offered by gangs and drugs.
I think about those tears and I see the tears of struggle from immigrant families who came to America by circumventing the legal process because they believed their families’ livelihoods were worth the risk; only to find out that the people who had the fortune of being born here see them and treat them as drug dealers and pariahs of society.
I think about those tears and I see the tears of Jesus as he was dying on the cross on the hill overlooking Jerusalem–the place where the rules were made and enforced; the same rules that condemned him and the people he had come to save. I see the tears he cried as he tried to show all of us rule-followers a more noble, beautiful, and just way to live.
Jesus says it is “from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” The problem isn’t what enters my body through my eyes, ears, or mouth. Rather, the problem is in my internal desire for self-justification, self-indulgence, and self-preservation that blinds me to the real struggles and issues of injustice. It all makes me wonder if I leave much room for grace in my life; and if not, do I really have any room for Jesus in my life?
For me, this darn scripture from Mark has been like seeing something horrific that I can’t unsee. I can only see myself as one of those self-righteous Pharisees, condemning people who don’t measure up to my standards; finding salvation in rule-following, as opposed to the unearned grace of a loving and just God.
It is painful to have my eyes opened to the ways that I participate in the oppressive and dangerous games that oppress people who are different from me. It’s not something I wanted to think about; but as a Christian in today’s world I have to admit that grace is the only answer in the face of so much injustice, self-righteousness, inequality of opportunities, and game-playing. Grace to forgive myself. Grace to share with others. Grace that sustain me when I stop trying to insulate my life with measures of success. Grace that transforms my weakness into something beautiful.
As hard as it has been to think about bearing these honest convictions with you today; I stand before you in complete faith and trust that God is offering an invitation to a way of life that would enable me to be of service to the people in our world I’ve spent so much time trying to ignore. If you sense that for yourself as well, then praise God! Let’s do the hard work of honest self-reflection. Let’s keep each other accountable and honest. Let’s make room for amazing grace to ignite in our hearts. And let’s finally allow God to work in and through us so that all people can live lives of health, security, opportunity, and justice.