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 said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
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.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 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.”
When my daughter Erica was very, very young, the two of us did something almost every evening. Just before her bedtime, I’d sit her in my lap, and I’d read the little cardstock book Goodnight Moon to her. Every night, I’d read those words in the same tone, in the same voice, the same phrasing and emphasis,
“In the great green room, there was a telephone,
and a red balloon,
and a picture of … the cow jumping over the moon…”
And she’d focus with laser-beam intensity at the pictures, as I pointed out each item mentioned,
“… Goodnight comb, and goodnight brush,
goodnight nobody, goodnight mush.
And goodnight to the old lady whispering hush.
Goodnight stars, and goodnight air,
goodnight noises everywhere.”
And every night after reading it, whenever it was possible, I’d scoop her up in my arms, and I’d take her outside, out on the sidewalk in front of the house, sometimes wrapping her in a little blanket if it was a little chilly, and we’d look up at the stars, and the sky, and just take it all in. In fact, the very first word I ever heard her say was on one of those nights, when she looked up in the sky and pointed, and said “Moon!”
It was a ritual that the two of us had. A tradition. A simple thing, really, but it was a way for us to mark the passing of the day into night, and the passing of time, and to share it together in this little way that bonded us together.
That’s what traditions do, at their best. They’re practices that keep us grounded in time and place, and acknowledge the cycles of life, and mark us in some way as a connected community with the others we share the tradition with. It’s the same whether we’re talking about our own individual lives, or our families, or our workplaces, or our favorite sports teams or recreational activities, and it’s certainly true in the church.
Of course, we all know that traditions and rituals can be a double-edged sword. They can be something that helps to instill community, and instill and reinforce something good and important; or they can be something that smothers growth, that makes an exclusive, unhealthy community, that institutionalizes pettiness and triviality, ultimately missing the whole point.
That’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel text. When we first hear it, it almost sounds like Jesus and the disciples are a bunch of slobs who don’t care about basic hygiene and who never wash up before dinner. But that really isn’t what Mark is talking about here. It’s also where things get a little sticky – bear with me here…
Mark says that the Pharisees were criticizing Jesus because they weren’t going through the very specific, ritual hand washing that Mark says all the Jews did before eating. The problem with this is that as best as anyone can tell, in Jesus’ time, it was only the temple priests who were supposed to engage in this ritual; it wasn’t expanded to include all the people until quite a number of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. So it appears that Mark is inserting a detail into the story that’s more of his own time than Jesus’. But we can forgive him for this bit of literary license, because ultimately, he’s making an important and valid point about Jesus’ teaching. Mark’s original audience consisted primarily of followers of Jesus who had been born Jews, and he’s writing at a time just after the Jews and Christians finally divided into two separate religious faiths. During that time, both the Christians and Jews argued amongst themselves, there were accusations and finger pointing coming from both directions, neither side’s hands were clean, if you’ll pardon the pun. As part of this, the Jews criticized the Christians, saying that they surely couldn’t be worshiping the same God that they were, since they didn’t observe a number of the rituals and traditions that had supposedly been instituted as necessary by God, including this ritual hand washing. So in this section of the gospel, Mark is trying to address that criticism to his original audience, showing that Jesus had taught that what’s really important isn’t the rituals in and of themselves, but rather, the intent behind them.
And in this case, the intent behind them was living one’s life in a way that was holy – literally, “set apart” from the norm for God, in ways that identify someone as a follower of God, and as seen by the way that they lived. Living in ways that please God. Living in ways that didn’t defile their souls. That kind of defiling, Jesus said, doesn’t happen by anything that goes into the body. Rather, what defiles a person – what defiles their soul – is what comes out of them. Sexual immorality. Stealing. Killing. Greed. Lying, deceit, betrayal, slander. Add to that living with a lack of grace, or mercy, or forgiveness. These are the kinds of things that defile us.
That assessment has the potential to make any of us feel pretty defiled – dirty in our souls – because let’s face it, we’ve all fallen into many of those kinds of behaviors. But for us, we know that isn’t the end of the story, because through Christ, through faith in the message of God’s love for us, we know that God has reached out to us, and reconciled with us even in spite of all that. Through Christ, we’re not only forgiven, and considered clean, we can actually want to live more holy lives. Through Christ, we’re also strengthened so we actually can live lives that are more pleasing to God, more holy, less defiled. Through Christ, we can focus less on the details of our rituals and traditions, and more on the meaning behind them.
Through Christ, we can examine our own lives, and our families, and most definitely our church, and we can focus on the difficult but important task of examining all of our own traditions – keeping the good, getting rid of the bad, and often, modifying others in order to make them more constructive and meaningful in our current setting – so they help us to have the kind of community that pleases God, and that help us to live in the way that Jesus was talking about – doing the original good, just in a slightly different way from in the past. Traditions can change,; they can be different, but still familiar.
On many nights now, I’ll get a call, or more often a text, from the one I used to read and stargaze with, as she’s just closed out a late shift at the restaurant and is walking to the subway station, or maybe she’s already on the train, making her way toward home. We’ll talk about our days. She’ll tell me about the coworker who’s driving her crazy; or the funny customer she waited on; or what Seamus, her cat, did the day before; or what her chemistry homework is, now that she’s gone back to school to study astrogeology, because she wants to study and learn what all those stars and planets in the sky are actually made of.
And sometimes, even though she doesn’t know it, as we’re texting back and forth, I’ll step outside and sit on the front stoop, and look up at the stars and the sky while we talk. It’s our tradition. And even though the details of the tradition are different now, and even though I really wish I could reach out and hold her again like when she was little, it’s actually very much the same. Through that tradition, I thank God for her, and the love between us. Through the tradition, I’m reminded of all the goodness and beauty and vastness of God’s creation, and how I’m meant to live, and to fit into it all. And I’m grateful that wherever we both actually are at the moment, the same moon that I’m looking up at is beaming down on her, too.
Thanks be to God.