Mark 7:1-21a (NRSV)
Our scripture this morning makes me want to step in and blow a whistle. Seems like a time out needs to be called.
It seems to me that Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Scribes is way out of proportion to what the situation calls. He seems to be escalating the interaction in a way that is not helpful.
All the Pharisees are doing is asking a question. The Pharisees and Scribes are looking at the practices of Jesus’ disciples and they are concerned. Jesus disciples are not conforming to the practices that have been agreed upon, the practices that disciples of religious leaders ought to conform to and that is problematic to them.
And from where I sit with my public health back ground and this being flu season after all, washing ones hands before one eats is a perfectly reasonable expectation. Washing whatever goes in one’s mouth also makes a whole lot of sense.
The Pharisees and Scribes, of course, are seeing the actions of the Jesus’ disciples through a religious observance lens. But like me they too are alarmed by the disregard that his disciples seem to be displaying. And so they inquire of Jesus about it.
Now, let’s be clear the Pharisees and Scribes could have come out with an accusation or even a condemnation but they didn’t. Instead they took a deep breath and asked a question: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
For some reason though, Jesus will have none of it. Instead of answering their question he goes on the offensive. Instead explaining the behavior of his disciples, Jesus calls into question the behavior of the Pharisees and Scribes. It is a move we know all too well and see all of the time. Deflect and redirect. If they are coming after you, pivot and go after them harder and faster.
I feel like I want to blow a time out whistle here, but I trust Jesus – so I began to wonder what is it about the Pharisees and Scribes that is bothering Jesus so.
Jesus’ sharpest words in all of the gospels always seem to be for the religious leaders.
In that time, the religious leaders were seen as the ones charged with the care of the people. In that time, there weren’t hospitals and soup kitchens, shelters and social workers, first responders and librarians. It was the religious leaders who were to tend to the social fabric, knitting the safety net, and building social capital in their day. Much of that has changed in our society today. It is not that religion is not still engaged in that good work (after all 21 of us are at this moment at work with our siblings in Nicaragua), but churches and religious institutions are not the only ones anymore. There is a vast array of professions that are charged with tending to the needs of others. That was not so in Jesus time.
But the Pharisees and Scribes had another key role and that was of course to tend to the spiritual needs of the people. They were charged with nurturing the people’s relationship with God. You see in that day, the concept of “the priesthood of all believers” was not a thing. In that time, people understood that it was the Temple and the religious elders were the ones who mediated the relationship between God and God’s people. The people needed the Religious Elders to bring their needs before God and the people needed the Religious Elders to bring the word of God to them.
I have a lot of sympathy for the Scribes and the Pharisees.
I do. Because their position is really a very difficult one. They are charged with caring for the physical and spiritual needs of the people, but they are trying to do in a really challenging and dangerous time.
They have the Roman Empire breathing down their necks, The Empire that is quite clear that they can go ahead and practice their religious, but only if the religious elders keep the people in line and make sure that they are conforming to the rules. Pay the taxes, keep the peace, don’t step out of line.
I have a lot of empathy for the Scribes and the Pharisee, you see, because, it is really not just about whether the disciples are washing their hands of not, it is about the larger context of whether Jesus and his followers are going to stay within the lines of what the Pax Romana – the Empire’s version of peace — looks like.
I have a lot of empathy for the Pharisees and Scribes because beneath what Jesus calls hypocrisy, I think, is actually a deep fear. They are projecting a degree of authority and power that I think deep down they actually do not really feel. I think the hypocrisy, the deflection and deception is just their way of trying to keep a very fragile status quo that for sure, serves them well, but also is the only way I think that they know how to be of service to the people. I think their strategy is to ride out Roman rule because they really do not see any other alternative.
And I think that is what frustrates Jesus so. They are so scared but they are unable to be honest about that fear. They are so unsure of what the future is going to hold but cannot possibly be honest about that uncertainty. What is deeply disturbing Jesus and what set’s him off this morning is that they are not able or willing to see the real problem at hand which is the way that they have lost touch with the hope and promise of their live with God.
Tara Brach, psychologist and Buddhist teacher speaks in a way that I find really helpful about this fear that fuels this self-deceptive tendency. She says that love is the way out of fear but to love we need to be in touch with what is really real.
This why Jesus comes on so strong I think. For it is not about debating the rules, it is about saving lives. Both the lives of the people who are in the Pharisees care and also, yes also the lives of the Pharisees. I think it slays Jesus and that is why he reacts so powerfully that those that are charged with knowing the Way are so lost to it. He knows after all that his time on the earth is not going to last too much longer, and yet the truth telling he is all about is getting ensnared in the thickets of deception and deflection. It is that he cannot bear.
In a few weeks we are going to be in lent, that time of preparation to really grabble with what it is that salvation looks like for us.
What if our Lenten practice this year could be about truth telling. Of really asking God to help us, help me see and uncover my own hypocrisy and the ways I may be deceiving myself. To ask God to help me see and be in touch with my own fears and places of my own hiding.
It’s hard, I know. Why do it when no one else is? Why push towards honesty when the whole idea of truth telling seems now a part of a previous time.
Why, take this on? Because, it is in coming out of our hiding, and facing our own self-deception, that God can finally meet us and where our own healing and salvation can begin. For God can work with anything, anything except our unwillingness to work with God.
Let me end by telling a story, if I may:
When my kids were in their elementary years we did a lot of skiing as a family. My son took to the slopes like a fish takes to water, but my daughter was always a bit more tentative. At the top of the chair lift, instead of feeling the freedom of the breathtaking views, she would start to hyperventilate a bit at how far down there was from up here. I knew she had the capacity to make it down but she did not know that for herself. It was often a struggle. On more than one occasion there were tears and temper tantrums. She would dig in and say how much she hated to ski and that she was only doing so because I made her. My heart broke for her. I could see how her fear and fatigue would over-take her but how she could not find a way to reach out in her need.
And so we came upon this plan. She would go to the top. She would set out and give it her best. But if she felt that she needed some help. That she was tired, or scared or just needed a break, she could “Call a taxi.” And that meant that she would stop on the slope, raise her hand and call out taxi! I usually skied sweep in our family and so that meant that I would ski up behind her, pull her to me, put my polls across my skies in front of her for her to hold onto and then with a great big snow plow, I would ski her down to the bottom of the hill. As I made our way down the mountain in big sweeping turns, I would sing to her, and as I did, I would feel her little body start to relax and to move her skies with mine. By the time we closed in on the bottom of the mountain, many a time, she would be singing along with me as we leaned into this turn and then the next.
Sometimes we just need to call “taxi!”.
The thing is — Kate went up that mountain because she knew that either Mark or I would be there to help her get down it. She was not alone. We had worked out a plan that she could trust. And the more she experienced the plan the more she trusted it and the more that plan enabled her to build the confidence and capacity until the time came when she was calling back to me to hurry up and keep up.
Not that we ever outski our need for God but you know what I mean. Right?
To follow my metaphor the Pharisees and Scribes were on that mountain, but instead of admitting their need and being honest about their fears, instead of “Calling a Taxi” they took off their proverbial skies and side stepping all the way down the slope all the while vowing that they would never in a thousand years put themselves in such a scary situation ever again.
But in doing so they (and all who looked to them,) missed out on the One that was waiting to carry them forth into greater freedom, joy and capacity.
And that is something that Jesus, the Way, cannot tolerate ever. And neither should we.