Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Table Scraps

Mark 7:24-30
by Daniel Harrell

It’s been a long haul for Jesus so far in Mark’s gospel. Hounding crowds who only seem to care that he can fix their sick bodies. Affronted religious leaders who only care that he’s not playing by the rules. Doofus disciples who never seem to get what he’s talking about even when it puts it in the most familiar of terms. No wonder verse 24 of tonight’s passage has Jesus heading for the coast. The man needs a vacation. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t had a day off since that one he took after creating the universe back in Genesis. Jesus books a beach house on the Mediterranean Sea, in the coastal community of Tyre, notable for its being nestled snugly within pagan Gentile territory. Even more notable was that the first century Jewish historian Josephus described Tyre as home to Israel’s bitterest enemies. Vacationing in Tyre would have been like a modern-day Israeli deciding to take a few days off in Gaza. Maybe this is another reason why Mark has Jesus not wanting anyone to know he was there.

Of course trying to keep his location a secret would be like President Obama trying to sneak off for a few days undetected after the Inauguration. It wasn’t going to happen. Jesus was as famous as people got back then. Mark mentioned in chapter 3 how news of Jesus’ knack for healing disease and exorcising demons spread throughout the known world, including Tyre. Not only that, Jesus drew attention from the otherworld too. Mark writes that whenever demons got a gander at Jesus, they’d fall to the ground shrieking, “You are the Son of God!” Jesus ordered them to keep their fangs shut since the last thing you need when you’re trying to get a world religion off the ground is a bunch of demons blowing your cover. But at least the demons recognized Jesus’ true identity. The chosen people of Israel, for whom Jesus specifically came, never could cotton Jesus as Messiah material no matter how many miracles he managed. How do you make a man your Messiah when he keeps making so many blunders? First he acts like he’s God—forgiving sins and working on the Sabbath. But then he eats with the very kind of people God despises――tax collectors and sinners! He touches lepers. He doesn’t fast. He doesn’t wash his hands. He breaks every kind of religious law, but then says that it’s the religious who need to repent. God’s kingdom was supposed to come cast in the mold of the glorious King David. The Messiah would ride in on clouds accompanied by an angelic army. But Jesus never gets his feet off the ground, walking wherever he goes with nothing but a little band of earthy fishermen and such types.

Still, the man could preach. The crowds who heard him expressed amazement at his words. They had such authority. Not only did his words change the heart, but they changed the weather too. Back in chapter 4 when he and his disciples were almost capsized by a storm blowing across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus told the squall to chill and it did. Yet what’s really unbelievable was how his disciples responded to their miraculous rescue. They stood there in the boat, dumb looks on their faces, and asked on another, “Who is this guy that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Hello? It’s not like Jesus hadn’t come out and told them already. In chapter 2, he called himself the “Son of Man,” blatant Messianic code for anybody who’d read the prophet Daniel. And for the few who hadn’t, he tacked on that bit about how the Son of Man had authority to forgive sins and do what he wanted to on the Sabbath, prerogatives that belonged only to the Lord himself. And yet, nobody in Mark (except the demons) call Jesus Lord. That is, not until he crosses over into Gentile territory. Leave it to a Gentile woman, the ultimate outsider, to finally get it right.

It’s no big secret that women were second-class citizens in first century Palestine. Tack on her Gentile credentials and Jesus had every reason (and requirement) to avoid her at all costs. Jewish law forbid contact with Gentiles on account that they were unclean. Even the demons that possessed them were unclean (that’s what verse 25 literally says, “her little daughter had an unclean spirit”). Jesus is just getting settled into his Mediterranean bungalow, when this pushy Gentile lady, passionate as would be any mom for her child, crashes through every social and religious taboo to crash Jesus’ vacation. She begs him to drive the demon out of his daughter. What’s a Messiah to do? Mark doesn’t tell us how the demon manifested itself, but if the account of a demon-possessed boy in chapter nine provides any clue, imagine the daughter foaming at the mouth, suffering seizures and throwing herself into fire or water. Her diagnosis may garner different terminology these days, but whether you call it a demonic or psychotic, the symptoms were unbearable for the daughter and her mother.

It’s a heart-wrenching scene. The distraught mother pleads for help, going so far as to throw herself at Jesus’ feet. To bow at another’s feet was recognized in that culture as a move of profound grief and respect—except that Jesus treats it as a move of bow-wowing. He calls her a dog. OK, he says it via a riddle, but the insinuation was unmistakable. He says to the woman, “You have to let the children be fed first. It’s not right to take their bread and throw it to dogs.” Ouch. What did Jesus mean? Jews would have understood children as another way to say chosen people. The people of Israel were God’s kids, the ones who were named in the will and due to inherit the kingdom. Dogs was an insulting way to say Gentiles. They were unclean and unsaved and unsavory. Good for Jesus for putting this pushy broad in her place.

Still, it is disturbing to have Jesus calling this poor woman names, even if she did disturb his day off. True, he called the Pharisees snakes and viper spawn, but they deserved it in ways that this woman did not. She only wanted help, they wanted Jesus dead. But rules are rules, which is why in Matthew’s rendition of this story, the disciples urge Jesus to kick the woman out of the house. Matthew even describes her as a Canaanite, which these days would be like describing her as a supporter of Hamas. As a faithful Jew, of course Jesus would call her a dog. “Hey,” he shrugged in Matthew, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Which must have made some of the Jews present do a double take: “Who you calling lost sheep?”). You’ll be relieved to know that Jesus didn’t technically call the woman a dog, at least not in the insulting sense. What he called her more like―a poodle. The word in verse 27 literally means little dog and was the Greek term for household pets. Thus the riddle depicts not scraps being tossed into the garbage for street dogs to scavenge, but rather food from the dinner table that children eat first before any leftovers are fed to the pets. OK, it still sounds insulting, but Jesus is only being realistic. He came to feed the children first. The Gentiles would have to keep their paws off the table until afterwards. However, by using a riddle, Jesus does throw the woman a bone. Having kids of her own, she knows how they rarely make it through dinner without something falling, or getting thrown, to the floor for the pets to lick up. She’s cool with being the poodle in this scenario. She’s cool with just getting crumbs. She’s just not cool with having to wait. And as it turns out, she needn’t wait. She cleverly says to Jesus in verse 28, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

And Jesus loved it! He replied, “For saying this, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” Now I can imagine some who witnessed this scene going away thinking, “Great, now I have to be witty for Jesus to heal me?” I can also imagine Jews on the scene, including Jesus’ own disciples, being extremely troubled that Jesus helped a Gentile at all. But what’s a Messiah to do? I can’t imagine Jesus ever refusing to help anybody, at least not anybody who asked him in person on earth (an important proviso for we who struggle with unanswered prayers). Jesus never met a disease he didn’t heal or a demon he didn’t cast out. But if it was Jesus’ intention all along to drive the demon from this Gentile woman’s daughter, why does he go through the whole dog show to do it? Why not just get on with the exorcism so that he can get on with vacation?

As with every riddle Jesus told, deeper meanings lay beneath the surface. Children get seats at the table alright, but like most children, they turn their noses at what’s on their plate. It’s all Dawn and I can do to get our 1-year-old Violet to eat a vegetable. We resort to age-old ploys like making airplane noises with her spoon or taking gleeful bites of mushy peas ourselves. Of course even when we manage to get a pea in her mouth, more often than not she spits it out onto the floor, having no idea what’s good for her. No matter that it comes packed with vitamins and minerals, all necessary for strong bones and teeth, it still has no taste that she wants in her mouth. For the children of God, Jesus’ good news of Kingdom come was like a plate full of vegetables. They were hungry for a smorgasbord of sweet vengeance aimed at their Gentile enemies, but Jesus dishes up humble pie, inviting them to love their enemies and do good to them, even if it means suffering at the hands of their enemies to do it. “Take up your cross and follow me?” No way the kids were eating that.

For seven chapters now the children of God have rejected Jesus as the bringer of God’s kingdom, effectively spitting him out of their mouth, which they will continue to do all the way to the cross. But this poodle of a Gentile woman gobbles him up. Sure, Jesus loves that she got his riddle (his own disciples were always having to have all his parables explained to them). But I think what Jesus loved most was that she got who he was. What matters in this story is not that Jesus calls this Gentile woman a dog, but that this Gentile woman calls Jesus Lord. Now it is true that “Lord” sometimes means simply “sir” or “master”―an address of esteem. The New Revised Standard Version even translates it this way. But a cursory glance at Mark’s gospel shows that Lord never appears without reference to God. Up to this point, despite all his preaching and all of his miracles, only the demons got the point. But now of all people, a Gentile woman gets it too, which explains why she was so willing to settle for crumbs. She’ll take whatever she can get as long as she’s getting it from God himself.

She calls him Lord, and Jesus replies, “for saying this, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” It’s the only miracle in Mark Jesus performed at a distance, providing further evidence that Jesus was who the woman believed him to be. The only other place in the gospels where long-distance healing occurs is in Matthew’s account where a Gentile Roman centurion, the worst of Israel’s enemies, asked Jesus to heal his sick servant. Jesus agreed to accompany the centurion home, to the shock of everyone, yet the centurion demurred, telling Jesus to just say the word and his servant would be healed. Now shocked himself, Jesus replied how he’d yet to come across anybody in Israel with so much faith. Dogs believe even when the children won’t.

The Gentile woman is the only one who bows to Jesus and confesses him as Lord here, but the Bible predicts a day when everyone else will join her. The Old Testament prophet Micah paints a picture of many nations flocking to the mountain of Zion, where God “will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore, but rather sit under their own vines and fig trees with no one to make them afraid. We will walk in the name of the Lord forever.” The mention of Zion tempts us to view this future as solely meant for the children of God. But as we heard the apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, famously declare it last Sunday: “Now that faith has come [by which he meant faith in Jesus as Lord]…, you are all children of God. … There is no longer Jew and Gentile, there is no longer slave and free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Now I know it sounds terribly naïve and even exclusive to some for me to paint some pretty picture of all the world at peace just because everybody believes in Jesus (especially given the way that we Christians have yet to figure out how to live at peace with each other). But hey, it ain’t my picture. Turn to the end of the Bible, to the book of Revelation, and Mount Zion is no longer an earthly locale, but situated in heaven upon which the Lamb of God sits, shining the righteousness of the gospel down on every nation, tribe, language and people. Turn a few pages further and the picture has Zion descending from heaven as a bride married to Jesus, making it so that God lives with his redeemed people forever. It’s a picture toward which we are called to work and pray, like we heard the old reverend Joseph Lowery pray it before that vast array of languages and people on the Capitol Mall this past Tuesday: “With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around… when yellow will be mellow… when the red man can get ahead, man; when white will embrace what is right…” and, we might add, “when Hamas will say no mas, when Israel will be real, when the US will use less, and when every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” “May all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ears to Hear

Mark 7:31-38

by Daniel Harrell

It’s a sweet coincidence that President-elect Obama’s inauguration occurs the day after we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Sweeter still would have been having Dr. King live long enough to see it. Some insist he that did, at least prophetically speaking. On the night before his assassination, King famously said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” I was intrigued to read last week about how for many people in their 20s, the reality of a black president in America is no great shakes. Nursed on the Cosby Show, having admired Morgan Freeman as president as a comet plowed toward the earth, and most recently watching David Palmer manage the Oval Office so ably for five seasons on 24: what’s the big deal about Barack Obama being black?. Shoot, 24 has already moved on to elect a woman president.

However, for those of us over 20 years old, albeit barely, watching Barack Obama take the oath of office on Tuesday remains monumental. I was in seventh grade when forced busing came to my Southern, Klan-infested town. I vividly remember the fear and anger that fueled months of race-based violence. Though ironically, as bad as it was in my Southern town, it never got as bad as Boston in 1974. Clearly, the United States has come a long way. Thank God.

Given Tuesday’s historic occasion, especially in the face of a dire economic crisis and two wars, Obama’s renown oratorical skills, like King’s, have raised expectations high for his inaugural address. As a devotee of Abraham Lincoln, who more than any single President made this coming Tuesday possible, Obama would love to emulate the rhetorical power of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, arguably the greatest speech ever made by a president. Obama said that every time he reads that speech he feels intimidated; first because it’s short (just over 700 words), and secondly because there’s a genius to Lincoln that’s never going to be matched. As something of a Lincoln log myself, I used Lincoln’s Second Inaugural as the text for our ministerial staff devotionals this past week. In 1865, with the Civil War mercifully drawing to an end, Lincoln sought to articulate his understanding of the unparalleled bloodbath the war brought. Moving from the historical to the political to the theological, Lincoln ultimately attributed the war’s ferocity to God’s judgment on America for its 250 years of human slavery. Citing Jesus’ words from Matthew 18 (in King James), Lincoln said, “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” He then drew the following conclusion: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”

We struggle to accept that God would ever will something as horrific as war, and yet to page through the Bible is to find war used as God’s judgment with alarming frequency. And yet, as Lincoln himself acknowledged, “if God wills that [war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” Granted, skeptics will counter that the trickier question is why God ever allowed human slavery to begin with. It’s a question that immediately slips into that perennial conundrum of the existence of evil itself, a conundrum that often incorporates disease, natural disaster and disability too. However when it comes to disability, toward which our prayers and ministry moments are directed today, divine will takes on different meaning.

In the book of Exodus, God’s people had likewise endured 250 years of slavery in Egypt when the Lord called Moses to be his prophet and lead his people to the Promised Land. Yet unlike Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Barack Obama, Moses was not an eloquent speaker. He pleaded his own disability in an attempt to get out of God’s plan for his life, describing himself as a man with a heavy tongue. However there’s no arguing with a burning bush. Rather than repairing Moses’ impediment, the Lord chastised him for trying to use it as an excuse. God said to Moses, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?”

God’s words to Moses apply to our passage tonight from Mark’s gospel, as I continue my red-letter series, stopping at those places in Mark where Jesus speaks. For those keeping track, I’ll return to Jesus’ encounter with the Syophoenician woman next Sunday. Tonight, Jesus encounters a man who is deaf and who has a speech impediment. The encounter occurs in the Decapolis region, significant in that the area was largely inhabited by Gentiles. If you heard last Sunday’s sermon, then you’ll remember how Jesus ripped the religious legal experts for misusing the law to discriminate against Gentiles, much like Southern Jim Crow laws segregated bathrooms and buses in the 1960s. Jesus labeled the whole thing a crock of doo-doo. Making matters worse, the Pharisees manipulated the law to oppress women and people with disabilities too. Although the book of Leviticus forbade “reviling the deaf or putting a stumbling block in front of the blind for fear of God,” by the time we get to Jesus, the religious interpretive tradition had managed to group the deaf, the blind and women with children, slaves and those regarded as “imbeciles” as people too ignorant to keep the law.

Of course if you’ve read rabbinic law, you might consider being labeled too ignorant to keep it as a welcome designation. Except that in first century Jewish society, the inability to keep the law put you at a severe social and religious disadvantage. Not only were you excluded from proper society, but you were excluded from proper worship. You weren’t allowed access to God. If the deaf man in this passage was also a Gentile (which was likely since Jesus spoke to him in Aramaic), he was doubly doomed. It is of no small consequence, then, that when the doubly excluded man was brought to Jesus, Jesus not only welcomed him, but granted him a private audience. On the one hand this could be interpreted as just another episode of a rebel Jesus trying to tick off the religious establishment. But by using the word Mark uses to describe the man’s condition, we recognize something else at work. The Greek word for the man’s speech disability shows up only here in the New Testament, and in only one other place in the entire Bible. Turn to Isaiah 35 in the Greek version of the Old Testament, and you read how “God is coming to save… the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless (here’s the word) will shout for joy.” Like much of Isaiah, this passage portends the arrival of the Christ, a new Moses who would bring with him a new creation. “Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. …only the redeemed will walk there, the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

Of course, if God is the one who makes people deaf and speechless, and all that God does is good, then Isaiah’s mention of giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf should be understood spiritually rather than somatically. But if that is the case, what is Jesus doing giving this deaf man his hearing? For an answer, turn back to chapter 2 and you’ll recall another group of friends lowering a paralytic buddy down through the roof of a house to meet Jesus. Jesus responded not by saying “get up and walk” but rather “your sins are forgiven,” the clear implication being that sin and not paralysis was the man’s problem. But the Pharisees had a fit about that, since nobody forgave sins but God. Jesus then reasoned that since nobody but God could make a paralyzed man walk either, if he could do one, he could also do the other. So Jesus told the paralyzed man to get up and walk so that everyone would now know that [quote] “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Presumably, had the friends had to carry their forgiven friend home on his mat, all would have been just as well.

Like the paralyzed man’s friends thought his paralysis to be the problem in chapter 2, so the deaf man’s friends thought his inability to hear and speak was the problem her in chapter 7. They begged Jesus to lay his hands on their friend and fix him. But as in chapter 2, Jesus responded in unexpected fashion. Rather than simply saying, “be healed!” and having the crowd applaud their approval, Jesus takes the deaf man off to the side and does this bit with his fingers and spit. Scholars assume that Jesus was using gestures common to miracle-workers of his day. First century societies associated curative powers with touch and saliva, not unlike the way we kiss boo-boos on babies to make them all better. But why would Jesus want to mimic so-called miracle workers, especially since they were likely to be frauds anyway? And not only that, he used his gestures in private for the deaf man only. Verse 33 literally says that Jesus “put his fingers in his ears… and touched his tongue” which could just as easily mean Jesus’ own ears and tongue. What if instead of using his fingers and spit to heal, Jesus used his fingers and spit to communicate? You know, like sign language? What if Jesus put his fingers in his ears and touched his tongue in order to give the deaf man heads up, or even ask permission for what he was going to do?

But wait a minute, if being deaf, like being paralyzed, is never a bad thing in God’s eyes, why make a deaf man hear or a paralytic walk? Perhaps, given the social segregation of people with disabilities from community and worship, perhaps Jesus’ reasons for giving this man his hearing were social rather than somatic. Unlike the rabbinic tradition that interpreted Isaiah for its own benefit, Isaiah himself grouped people without sight or hearing or mobility or speech alongside the redeemed who get to travel the holy highway. For Jesus, it was never the deaf who couldn’t hear or the blind who couldn’t see; but rather, it was those with ears to hear who never get it and those with eyes to see who never see what God is doing. What if new creation isn’t about getting a new and so-called perfect body, but perfect perception instead? Our ministers Toni and Walter Kim, whose daughter Naomi has Down’s Syndrome, say how they can’t imagine her ever being without it since then Naomi wouldn’t be Naomi. What if instead of seeing people as we think they should be, heaven is about seeing each other as God sees us—not according to the color of our skin or our cognitive capacities and physical abilities, but according to the content of our character――a character shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus. After all, even Jesus keeps his scars in heaven.

Leslie Bodkin, who directs our Enable Boston work here at the church, pointed me to a blog posted by a couple who met here at Park Street and whose son, Noah, has retinoblastoma which has led to the removal of one of his eyes. The parents remark how they couldn’t help but recall Jesus’ words, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.” They write, “Noah’s eye is of course not causing him to sin (yet, lol) but this scripture does apply because it is better for Noah’s health to have the eye removed than to have two eyes but with a poorer prognosis. We’re thankful to God for all that He does for us and we trust Him. In the end, in this fallen world, all you can do is praise, fear, and love the Lord. In a way, Noah is unwittingly doing the Lord’s work even before he learns about the Lord. Noah has caused us to praise the Lord more, fear the Lord more, seek the Lord more and love the Lord more, and repent. This makes him, in our weird parental opinions, a little servant of God.”

In verse 34, Jesus looked up to heaven, a customary posture of prayer, and then sighed, a verb the Bible generally reserves for expressing frustration. Why the frustration? Because the man was deaf? No, God made him that way. Because it bothered Jesus that he was going to give him hearing? Maybe. Maybe Jesus sighed because nobody would receive the man as God received him—as God made him. Not the religious experts. Not society. Not even his friends who wanted him fixed. Jesus said to the deaf man, “Be opened,” but he may just as well have been talking to everybody. Besides, at the point Jesus said it, only those with ears to hear could have heard him say it. Mark writes that immediately afterwards the man could hear and speak, and immediately after that Jesus told him to keep his mouth shut (with everyone else). Curious isn’t it? I always wonder why instead of giving the one man his speech, Jesus didn’t just make everybody else mute. Why did Jesus want everyone to keep quiet? Most think it was because Jesus didn’t want to people to think he’d just come to fix people on earth. Jesus wasn’t running a body shop. Our bodies weren’t broken. It was our relationships that were broken――our relationships with God and each other.

Jesus did fix that. By the time we get to Paul, this former Pharisee is preaching how Jesus has done away with the law, by which he meant the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah with all of its added barriers and prejudices. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Now that faith has come [by which he meant faith in Jesus]…, you are all children of God. … There is no longer Jew and Gentile, there is no longer slave and free, there is no longer male and female, [and I might add hearing and deaf, black and white, abled and disabled or whatever], for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” May God give us ears to hear it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cleanliness & Godliness

Mark 7:1-23

by Daniel Harrell

If I appear a bit chunkier than when you last saw me, it’s because I spent the New Year down home in North Carolina where my mother fed me nonstop. She’s one of those prototypical Southern mothers for whom food equals love. She starts talking dinner before you’ve finished eating breakfast (dinner being Southern for lunch), and once you are finished with breakfast, it’s not ten minutes before she’s asking whether you need something to tide you over. This overemphasis on food is part of what makes Southerners southern, as well as the kind of food we eat. Country ham and Johnny cakes, barbecue and hushpuppies, creasies and collards, grits and Cheerwine, pole beans and chow chow, sweet tea and persimmon pudding—all of it fried―it’s enough to cause anybody raised south of the Mason-Dixon line to start licking his lips. Of course if such a delectable litany only causes your lips to curl, then you’re getting at the dilemma Jesus faces here in Mark 7, our next stop in an ongoing series on the red-letters of Mark’s gospel (red-letters denoting the sayings of Jesus).

Actually, this passage begins with less concern over menu than manners as a group of Jewish religious experts go all Emily Postal over the failure of Jesus’ disciples to wash their hands before dinner. Their concern, however, was hardly hygienic. It wasn’t even about etiquette. For them, to fail to wash your hands denoted a severe breach of piety. Sort of like some people treat the failure to say grace before eating. In Exodus 30, God instructed Moses to make a wash basin so that “whenever Aaron and his sons approach the altar to present an offering to the LORD by fire, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die.” Exactly how having priests wash their hands before offering sacrifices in the Tabernacle got to mean everybody had to wash their hands before coming to the dinner table is a long story. Suffice to say, in Exodus, washing your hands was about ritual purity. As the Psalmist would later sing, “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? Whoever has clean hands and a pure heart.” “Clean hands” had to do with a clear conscience, though clearly, washing the dirt off your fingers did little to purge your soul. However, the ritual did remind you of the need to get your heart right before God. Just like the habit of saying grace reminds you to be grateful to God even if you don’t always feel it when you say it. It may feel perfunctory at times (and even embarrassing if you’re with somebody who prays in restaurants), but remembering to be thankful may sometimes be worth a little public humiliation. The problem was that by the time we get to Jesus’ day, the ritual became the reality itself. As long as your hands were clean, the condition of your heart no longer mattered.

This danger is labeled hypocrisy, a word that derives from the Greek word for actor or pretender. It’s a label often leveled at liturgical traditions, claiming that scripted prayers and other practices allow you to fake it in church. The same could be said of charismatic traditions too. Freeform prayer and raised hands are just as easily used as a façade for what’s really going on inside. Hypocrisy is nothing new, whatever your worship tradition. Not only does Jesus accuse the Pharisees of it here in Mark, but he cites Isaiah who’d accused their forebears of the same thing so many centuries prior. “These people honor me with their lips,” the Lord said in Isaiah, “but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” Although God commanded hand-washing in the first place, the priests, elders and religious leaders manipulated the practice to serve their own purposes.

Take the whole corban thing in verses 11 and following. Corban is a borrowed Hebrew word meaning offering which by this time had come to mean something more like a pledge. The difference between a pledge and an offering is obvious. An offering is money actually given whereas a pledge is money promised, and as we all know, promises are meant to be broken. Toss in a couple of aged parents in need of help, and what you have is some Pharisee refusing to help his parents by saying his money is all tied up for God (thereby maintaining his righteousness) but then that spending the money on a new TV for himself. Now having just come from a week of living with my parents I understand the temptation. Not only does mom force-feed me like a pig due for slaughter, she treats any polite refusal as complete rejection, pouring on the guilt like gravy. But as much as this may drive me crazy, is it any reason to deny her financial aid if she needed it (which surely she one day will). Worse, what if I denied to help my parents on account of Jesus saying in Luke 14:26 that anyone who follows him has to hate his father and mother. And even worse than that, if Jesus meant what he said (which he did but not like it sounds), what if I denied helping my parents because of Jesus but then didn’t really follow Jesus either, effectively blaming Jesus for my own selfishness?

It’s this using God to abuse others that gets Jesus so angry. And then washing your hands of your guilt as if a little soap and water will do the trick. The Pharisees had made it so that cleanliness was not next to godliness, but godliness itself. Wash your hands and you don’t have to honor your parents. Wash your hands and you don’t have to make amends. Wash your hands and there’s no need to confess your sins because as long as you wash your hands, you don’t have any sins to confess. Again, it’s like saying grace. You don’t have to actually be grateful to God, just go through the motions. It’s the motions that make you a good person; and in some cases, a person better than everyone else. I knew one guy who loved saying grace in restaurants because he believed it shamed all the pagans. More than ever feeling embarrassed, he saw public prayer as a means of embarrassing others.

I thought this ridiculous until Dawn and I had over a neighbor for dinner a few years ago. We sat on the patio for a feast of grilled chicken, bowing our heads before eating to thank God for the bird. Our neighbor looked down, but right after sheepishly described herself as a “heathen,” and we’ve never gotten her to come to dinner since. Which brings us to the second issue in this passage. That Mark has to parenthetically explain about corban in verse 11, as well as about ceremonial washing in verses 3 and 4, sends a signal that his audience is not up on Jewish culture. He’s talking to Gentiles. Which means that the issue here is not merely one of ritual cleanliness, but ritual exclusion too. It’s why Jesus makes the shift from manners back to menu, from hand-washing to kosher eating, both signs of Jewish identity. In the minds of many Pharisees, they were favored by God because they washed their hands and stayed away from bacon. But Jesus challenged that understanding. Verse 15: “Nothing outside a person can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him ‘unclean.’”

For the Pharisees, to be a Gentile was the epitome of uncleanliness, a person so out of reach of grace as to be outcast by God. Part of the ritual prayers Jews prayed was to thank God for not making them Gentiles. Gentiles were uncircumcised, not kosher and most notably, not chosen. Touch one and you risked social contamination. Share a meal with a Gentile and you risked religious damnation. Eating with sinners made you dirty by association. Eating with sinners meant you weren’t chosen. But God never chose anybody on account of what they ate, how they ate or with whom they ate. Salvation has always been a move of pure grace, accessible by faith. God-fearing Gentiles were always free to join the covenant. By the time we get to the New Testament, it’s clear that the whole thrust of the Abrahamic covenant had always been total Gentile inclusion. It’s why the church celebrated Epiphany long before Christmas ever made it onto the calendar. Among the first to meet the newborn King of the Jews were Gentiles from the east who honored him as their king too. Jesus came for everybody.

But what good is it to chosen, what good is it to be God’s elect, his favorites if anybody can get included? There’s an amusing article in the New York Times Magazine entitled Who Would Jesus Smack Down? It’s about Mark Driscoll, a popular Seattle pastor known for having “the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher around.” You’ll have to check out You Tube if you want to hear it. Driscoll is at the forefront of a so-called Neo-Calvinist movement, a hardcore, seeker-insensitive take on the gospel that eschews “weepy worship which sings prom songs to a Jesus presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair; a neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture who… would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.” A distinctive of Calvinism (if not Calvin himself) is that God chooses some sinners to save and some sinners to send to hell before they ever sin themselves. Human beings are so totally depraved from the start that for God to save anybody is a move of immense mercy. If this is true, then if anything you’d think that those God does save would be incredibly and visibly humbled by it. ­Yet as the article’s author, Molly Worthen, observes, “the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents.” She writes how Driscoll brooks no dissent in his church, excommunicating leaders who challenge him and directing the rest of the congregation to shun them. He preaches at seven sites most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens. At one suburban campus she attended, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll’s face blocked the cross from view.

Human nature being what it is, with grace it’s always been easy to slip from pardon to privilege, from being forgiven to being entitled, from favor to favoritism. Worse, for the Pharisees in Mark, they twisted the emblems of God’s grace into barriers against that grace, building upon prior prejudices to keep out those they considered unclean regardless of God. Even Peter himself was guilty. In Galatians 2, Paul writes of Peter coming to Anitoch where a group of legalist Christians talked him into excluding Gentile Christians from his dinner table because they hadn’t been circumcised (sort of like Baptists refusing to eat with Presbyterians because they hadn’t been baptized as adults). Paul jumps all over Peter, who should have known better, especially since back in Acts 10 he’d had that vision of a picnic blanket coming down out of heaven loaded with all kinds of forbidden foods to eat: pork chops, lobster and the like. A voice said to Peter, “Get up and chow down.” But Peter replied, “Surely not. Lord. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” And the voice said, “Hey, do not call anything impure that God has made clean!” This happened three times (which is usually the case with Peter). As Peter woke up and wondered what the vision meant, a knock came at his door from a Gentile named Cornelius who wanted to hear about Jesus. Peter said, “It is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”

Of course Jesus had already told him that himself. Unfortunately, Jesus used a riddle to do it and Peter was slow to get it. As were the rest of the disciples. Which is why they pulled Jesus aside to ask what he was talking about when he said “Nothing outside a person can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him ‘unclean.’” Jesus replied, “Are you so dull? Did you miss high school health and anatomy class? Don’t you understand that nothing entering a person’s mouth enters his heart but rather his stomach. And then from there it moves out of the body and into the toilet” (you NIV pew Bible leaves out that part, not wanting Jesus to sound like a potty mouth too). Mark concludes that Jesus thereby declares all food clean, which is why Christians don’t keep kosher. The point being that no amount of kosher food, or Southern food for that matter, can ever make you kosher (or Southern). It never could. Keeping kosher was always a reminder of grace, as well as a way for you to remember to never take grace for granted. The law never saved anybody, but it did show saved people how to live a saved life, and part of living that saved life meant honoring the God who saved you by keeping yourself away from those thoughts and behaviors that dishonor the grace that’s in you.

God’s the one who cleans. Washing your hands reminded you to keep clean. God’s the one who makes holy. Staying away from the bacon you love reminded you to stay away from the evil you love. Clean hands don’t make you pure any more than bacon makes you evil. What makes you evil is what comes out of you. Remove Mark’s parentheses in verse 19, and you can see Jesus uses a clever, if not disgusting, double entendre. “Nothing entering your mouth enters your heart but rather your stomach from whence it moves on out of your body and into the toilet. It’s what comes out of you that makes you unclean.” In other words, the evil that comes out of your heart is like the feces that comes out of your butt. Sin is that disgusting: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, foolishness, these evils come from out of your heart and stink up everything.

“These people honor me with their lips,” the Lord said in Isaiah, “but their hearts are far from me.” They ate right, washed their hands and said their prayers, treating their rituals like a huge can of Lysol. Of course, do that enough and eventually you’ll no longer need Lysol. As my mom always told me, spend your life in the toilet and you’ll get used to the smell. Not only that, stay there long enough and you’ll start to think all your crap smells good. Total depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, those who hold on to it.