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?” (Mark 7.5)
Clinging to the Past
Now and then someone who knows me casually will say something like, “You’ll love this, since you were raised in the South,” or, “Can you explain such-and-such to me? I didn’t grow up down South.” They’re always surprised when I say I grew up in Chicago, raised by Alabamians who viewed their Southern heritage as a sort of ethnicity. When my brother and I were very young, our parents pointed to our neighbors—the Hogans and Leonardis and Borkowskis—and told us that, just as they followed certain customs passed down from their elders, we too behaved certain ways and believed certain things because of where we came from. We talked differently than our neighbors, not only in accent, but also in terms of what was and wasn’t said. Our family dynamic was different. Our sense of hospitality and social obligation was different. And, most obvious, our religious life was different. Nobody went to church more often than the Wolfes—twice on Sunday, twice during the week, with nearly every Saturday consumed by some sort of outreach or fellowship event. So I am a Southerner through and through with remarkably little experience of what living “down South” is actually like.
Although my parents were grateful to serve Chicago congregations and adapted very well to their urban surroundings, they mourned the slower, more genteel life they left behind. And they kept their Southern identity alive by transmitting its values and practices to us. Common courtesies—saying “please” and “thank you,” “ma’am” and “sir”—were drilled into us, along with very specific shows of gallantry and refined table manners. (To this day, I walk nearest the curb when accompanying a lady down the street.) This is not to say our neighbors didn’t raise their children do likewise. The difference was we weren’t taught to be mannerly because it was polite. Our manners grew out of who we were—or perhaps more accurately, out of the past my parents were clinging to.
In Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 7.1-8,14-15,21-23), we see a very similar situation, as a few Pharisees and scribes, desperately clinging to the past, confront Jesus about His followers’ poor table manners. The disciples don’t wash up before dinner. That deeply offends the Pharisees. To understand why they’re offended and why Jesus responds to their complaint as He does, we need to understand what they’re trying keep alive by perpetuating ancient traditions.
Ferreting Out Scofflaws
Palestine is unique among Roman conquests in that the Jews are permitted to practice their faith and customs without interference. While other conquered nations must swear allegiance to Caesar and adopt imperial beliefs, the Jews’ willingness to die for their faith tradition has resulted in a somewhat schizoid way of life. First-century Jews live under two governments and legal codes: their own religious law and Roman occupation. On the surface, life is not much changed under Caesar: temples and synagogues stay open, social customs remain intact, and civil justice is administered in Jewish courts. At the same time, however, Roman presence in Palestine is undeniable and the Jews recognize that any bold move outside the status quo could bring down Caesar’s fist. In next to no time, Israel and Judea—the Jewish twin kingdoms—could become like their neighbors: impoverished replicas of Rome. The largest Jewish sect, the Pharisees, are obsessed with preventing such a fate by safeguarding traditions of their past. Jewish identity is everything to them, and they make it their lives’ work to preserve it. In many ways, they operate like detectives, ferreting out scofflaws and confronting their non-compliance to Jewish law in public.
Word of a new, radical Rabbi’s success in the provinces compels a group of Pharisees and scribes—i.e., Temple academics—to leave Jerusalem and investigate. As a rule, people clean up their acts when they see the Pharisees coming. Jesus and His followers don’t do that. The Pharisees arrive and are appalled that this rough-and-tumble bunch ignores one of their most basic traditions: they don’t wash their hands before they eat. They challenge Jesus: “Why do Your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7.5) Ordinarily, that would be enough for any leader to apologize and promise to do better. Not Jesus. He disregards their complaint, and challenges their obsession: “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.’” (v6-7)
Accommodating the Pharisees' tendency to feign obtuseness when it’s convenient, He breaks it down further. “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition,” He says. (v8) He does a bit of legal gymnastics to prove He’s as fit as they in manipulating the law to find fault with others. Then He addresses the crowd collecting around this brouhaha. “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand,” He says. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (v14-15) And what might those “things that come out” be? In this context, they’re self-righteousness, slavish observance of archaic customs, and myopic judgment of others’ behavior.
Reach for the Future
Throughout His ministry, Jesus’s problem with the Pharisees springs from disgust with the political motives behind their holiness. They’ve transformed spiritual law and religious custom into a nationalist agenda and appointed themselves the keepers of all things Jewish. Their unforgiving scrutiny of others is basic to their intentions to homogenize Jewish identity in such a way that past traditions are preserved. On one level, this is a noble effort. But on a deeper one, it results in the diminution of those who don’t abide by every letter of the law and excludes anyone who doesn’t fit the Pharisees’ idealized profile. I like to think that even as Jesus challenges His Pharisee accusers, He glances around at His followers. Their hands are dirty. Their lives don’t stack up. But their hearts are close to God. They are the first fruits of God’s kingdom, a new ideal that will survive centuries of political tumult and regime change. While the Pharisees cling to their past, Jesus and His disciples reach for their future. That’s why Jesus keeps such a close eye on the Pharisees, even as they watch Him closely. His Shepherd’s heart will not permit the rude comingling of faith with a political agenda to endanger His flock. Yes, in the current circumstance, Jewish identity is important—but not to the extent that its traditions sacrifice justice and acceptance for the sake of preserving it.
In the current political climate, we can expect challenges from self-appointed keepers of Christianity. They function like a band of detectives, scrutinizing everything we do and say, eagerly hoping to catch us diverging from traditional norms. This text is particularly illuminating for faithful Americans striving to build God’s kingdom amid cries of “taking back” the nation—restoring old values and traditions that no longer promote justice and inclusion, protecting a “Christian” identity that is no longer relevant in a rapidly changing world. We cannot live in the past. We must reach for the future, looking to God to lead us to peace and compassion and equity for all.
Watching the detectives is vital. When we see them coming, the last thing we should do is tidy up and be polite. We must own our identity as Christ's followers and demonstrate discipleship by removing all rancor and hostility from our lips, even when our non-conformity to the mythic Christian past triggers rancor and hostility. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” Jesus says in verse 21. Live from your heart. Speak peace and justice. Know that you’re being watched and use that as an opportunity to embody God’s kingdom in a culture overrun with self-appointed detectives. Leave their past behind. Reach for your future.
When we see self-appointed “faith detectives” coming our way, the last thing we should do is tidy up and be polite.