To me, the showdown between Jesus and the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading speaks to a very contemporary issue. Did God’s revelation to humanity finish when the New Testament was completed?
The presenting issue: ritual cleanliness
The Pharisees confronted Jesus because some of his disciples did not carry out the proper ceremonies for ritual cleanliness before eating. Devout first century Jews such as the Pharisees considered ritual cleanliness as extremely important. They tried to follow all the Laws of Moses, as written in the first five books of what we call the Old Testament. This wasn’t because they were stiff-necked killjoys. They understood God’s laws as a gift to them. They followed these laws joyfully, out of gratitude that God had given them rules to live by. That is what they meant by following the traditions of the elders.
It wasn’t about a quick rinse with soap and water before dinner. It was about an elaborate washing ceremony. Let’s also be clear that this passage doesn’t give small boys a free pass over washing their hands before meals. We don’t have to fall for the line, “If Jesus and his disciples didn’t have to, why do we?”
The tradition of the elders – we’ve always done it this way
Jesus claimed that the Pharisees had misunderstood the traditions of the elders. They had become to fixated on following the proper rituals that they had forgotten the reason behind God’s commandments. They were in danger of making idols of these human rituals. The matter is parallel to other issues in Mark’s Gospel concerning Sabbath observance. In that case, Jesus re-framed the question this way – was the Sabbath made so that people could rest from work, or were we created to fit the Sabbath rules?
It wasn’t really about eating food
So the immediate issue about hand-washing is about more than mere cleanliness. Maybe this seems rather arcane – of interest to first century Jews, but not to us. But we see the relevance in how Jesus replied. He talked about what is really clean and really dirty. It’s not about food at all. Food is just food. You eat it. The waste products go into the sewer. In today’s reading, we see that Jesus himself overturned tradition by declaring all foods to be ritually clean.
Jesus re-framed the question in terms of being defiled, meaning polluted or corrupted. The things that really defile a person are those that come from within – from the heart as he put it. Cleanliness is really about what you say and do. It’s all very well to talk about being defiled by outward dirt. People really dirty themselves by what is in their hearts. It comes out in what they say and do. Jesus gave examples of what he meant – vices such as adultery, slander, pride, and envy.
Jesus’ perspective was that the Pharisees were stuck in their understandingof God. They were intolerant of new ideas about God. They believed that the Laws of Moses had given their people all the revelation they would ever need. In contrast, Jesus proclaimed a new understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. His was based on love and inclusion, with more emphasis on what you should do than what you shouldn’t do. As Christians, we see Jesus’ teaching as promoting this new revelation.
Did God’s revelation stop at a fixed time or is it ongoing?
Is it realistic to imagine that there has been no further change in how we understand that relationship since Jesus lived on earth? Did God’s revelation to humanity came to an abrupt stop two thousand years ago? Yet that is exactly the view of those Christians who quote a verse or two of Scripture and claim that they must be right, “because it’s in the Bible.” I often wonder how carefully they follow every last detail of Scripture. Do they avoid polyester and cotton shirts (no cloth must be made from two fabrics)? Do they resolutely refuse to eat shrimps and bacon (no shellfish and no meat from animals with divided cloven hooves)?
I passionately believe that God’s revelation continues to this day. Today, most of us in the West take for granted ideas about compassion and inclusion. If it is really true that God has not said anything new to humanity for the past two thousand years, I ask myself where these ideas came from. Slavery was an accepted institution in the first century. Jesus told parables about slaves without suggesting that slavery was wrong. It remained that way for 1800 years. Christian people – William Wilberforce in England, Harriet Tubman and others in the United States, fought against it, and eventually won. In the 20th century civil rights became human rights. Traditions of the elders were overturned. Those of a Pharisee-like mind-set disagreed.
Christians have always responded to what they have seen as God’s revelation
Christian people like the Roman Catholic Sisters of Saint Joseph set up hospitals across this country. Our own Canadian Tommy Douglas fought for universal health care out of his Christian conviction that access to health care should not depend on your income. The Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke forcefully against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero proclaimed a liberation theology for his people against a brutal right wing dictatorship in El Salvador. All of us, he said, rich or poor, are God’s children. As did Jesus.
These events did not happen two thousand years ago. Many of them happened within the lifetimes of Christians alive today. I profoundly believe that all these people, acting out of their convictions, responded to God’s continuing revelation to humanity. New ideas keep welling up. In this new century, Canada has legalized same sex marriage and authorized medical aid in dying. Thoughtful Christians have had much to say on both sides of these arguments. In the 1960s, Time magazine had the famous cover “God is Dead.” It strikes me that for one who is dead, God has had a lot to say in recent years.
So, parents, take heart. Mark did not write today’s Gospel expressly for the pleasure of small children with dirty hands. One morning in church or Sunday School will not undo years of telling our kids to wash their hands before meals. And who knows what God’s next amazing revelations will be? What’s for sure is that they will upset lots of people who want to stick to the traditions of their elders.