Earning God’s love?

Pentecost 13
Mark 7:1-8,14-23
Marian Free

In the name of God who despite everything, loves us as we are. Amen.

The book of Leviticus (the book of law) includes pages and pages of rules for the people of Israel to obey. These included ritual requirements as well as instructions about day to day behaviours. It is here that we find the regulations in relation to leprosy and other skin diseases, instructions about the festivals and about sacrifices, details about the purification of women after child birth, directions as to who one might or might not have sexual relations with and so on. Here too we find the injunctions about clean and unclean foods. “Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud – such you may eat. But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The rock badger, for even thought it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you, the hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.” (11:3-7) Even contact with the carcass of such an animal was deemed to make someone unclean until the evening.

This meant, among other things that they could not participate in Temple worship, and may even have to have kept themselves separate from other people.

We would be devastated today to discover that Leviticus declares oysters, prawns, scallops and all sea creatures which did not have scales and fins to be forbidden foods and that even having contact with any part of  them would, according to Leviticus leave us in a state of uncleaniness for the remainder of the day.  A state of ritual impurity could be attained in a variety of ways and Leviticus provides information as to how this state might be avoided.

In this book too, we find the origin of the ritual of washing before eating. The priests were not allowed to eat the sacred donations unless they had first immersed their bodies in water.

This then, is the background of today’s gospel. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees had adopted  many of the rituals  directed to of the priests in order to achieve the holiness associated with priesthood or to express in their own lives the priesthood of the laity. It was a practice that many of the ordinary Jewish people had adopted and expanded. So, as we see in today’s gospel, the practice of washing before eating had become standard practice for many and food laws continued to be faithfully observed.

This account of conflict with the Pharisees and scribes is the second time that Mark records Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees on the basis of his disciple’s behaviour. The first occurs in chapters two and three in which the Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples of not fasting and of plucking grain (that is of working) on the Sabbath. In a third story, Jesus finds himself in direct conflict with the disciples for healing on the Sabbath..

In this account, the Pharisees and some of the scribes accuse Jesus’ disciples of eating with defiled hands – that is of contravening the tradition which insists on ritual washing, not only of hands, but of the food that was being eaten and the vessels that were used. In the earlier collection of stories, Jesus defended his actions with reference to scripture. Here, however, he moves to the attack. It is not his disciples who are breaking the law, he says, but the Pharisees, his accusers who are failing to obey God. They claim to serve God, but their hearts are far from him. Their outward observance does not match their inward disposition. Despite what the Pharisees think, it is not the commandment of God which they observe Jesus says, but only a human tradition.

Having directly confronted his accusers, Jesus turns aside and speaks directly to the crowds. In so doing, he takes the argument in a slightly different direction. He has changed tack from ritual cleanliness, to the food laws – the foods that make one clean or unclean. It is not what one eats that makes a difference, rather it is what comes out of a person that is important. Contrary to what we read in the book of Leviticus, Jesus is telling the people that what they eat does not determine whether or not they are impure. It is their behaviour, their attitudes and their relationship with God which reveal their state of ritual purity or impurity.

The crowds are left to ponder this statement as Jesus enters the house where his confused disciples ask him what he meant. Jesus elaborates using the colourful language that reminds them that the food that they eat turns into sewerage. It doesn’t matter what they eat, because it all ends up being expelled. Pure or impure food doesn’t actually change who and what they are. Food in and of itself does not have the power to make them pure. What they eat or do not eat will not disguise or hide or excuse any ugliness which resides within.

Greed, evil intentions, immoral behaviour, envy, slander and pride are not consequences of the observance or failure to observe dietary laws. Eating patterns in and of themselves do not lead to adultery, deceit or licentiousness. In fact, no outward observance can change the person inside.

Like the Pharisees we might perfectly observe all outward forms – praying regularly, only associating with the right sort of people, ensuring that we are seen to be doing what is proper and right – but all that would not change our inward disposition.

What the gospels demonstrate is that Jesus had more time for the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners – those who knew their unworthiness – than he did for the smug, self-assured Pharisees who very self-centredness precluded a dependence on God. Jesus claims it is not possible to make God love us by behaving in particular ways or by observing certain rituals. Jesus’ death on the cross provides clear evidence that God loves us regardless. In the face of such overwhelming, unmerited affection, it remains for us to humbly acknowledge our weaknesses, our frailty and our desires and gratefully understand that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us more and nothing that we can do that can make God love us less.

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