Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Imagine if you will, going to a restaurant and prior to sitting down to eat, you look over and you notice Pastor Roland sitting at the next table. Well, isn’t that special!
Imagine that you decide to get up from your table and go to the washroom to wash your hands. Maybe you simply turn on the water and run your hands under the water for a few seconds and towel off. You turn from the wash basin and who do you imagine is standing behind you? Why it’s Pastor Roland! Surprise, surprise!
If that was not enough, Pastor Roland begins to take you to task for not soaping your hands and scrubbing them while you recite the Alphabet. Such an encounter might make you very uncomfortable, maybe even anger you, but the best would be yet to come.
All of a sudden, Pastor Roland who has been yelling at you for improper hand-washing, accuses you of not believing in God; he tells you that you are a sinner and that you are heading to hell in a handbasket.
Imagine that you move forward to protest Pastor Roland’s presence in the washroom and his rush to judgement. As you try to defend yourself, Pastor Roland backs away and says, "Don't touch me!"
You then discover that Pastor Roland is actually afraid that you will contaminate him with your "germs; "Spiritual "germs" that is. If YOU are heading to hell in a handbasket, Pastor Roland certainly wouldn't want be touched by YOU, because then HE would be heading to hell too.
Can you imagine such a scenario? Does that sound a little bit over the top?
That is the kind of situation we encounter in today's gospel.
The disciples are accused of an improper religious observance and a religious group known as the Pharisees don't want anything to do with them because the Pharisees don't want to be religiously defiled and polluted.
A very important question is raised in today's gospel reading as Jesus and his disciples encounter a group of Pharisees. Question is: "What defiles, what pollutes, what makes us dirty?"
The Pharisees believed that they were "clean" people. What made them clean and UNdefiled? The Pharisees scrupulously observed all the laws of Scripture and all the laws that were built around the interpretation of Scripture. They understood that the proper observance of the hundreds and hundreds of laws and rules of the faith, made them clean and Undefiled.
If that was the case, then what made them unclean and defiled? What polluted THEM? They believed that external contact, IMPROPER external contact, made them unclean and defiled them.
We often look at the Pharisees and imagine them to be a bunch of "wingnuts," but the truth is, the Pharisees did not operate in a vacuum. There were a lot of people who believed that defilement was an external phenomenon and the gospels are actually chock full of stories regarding defilement and uncleanliness. On top of that, those same gospel stories pit clean people against unclean people and the reader is left to wonder, what kind of defilement is going to take place.
In addition, the reader of all those gospel stories is left to ask the essential question: "How will Jesus react to an external threat of defilement?"
Consider the story of Jesus and his encounter with the 10 Lepers. The 10 Lepers call out to Jesus, FROM A DISTANCE. Why did they do this? Simple, they understood that their leprosy made them unclean and they were defiled and if they were to come into contact with Jesus, a rabbi and likely a pious Jew, one who might have observed all the religious laws, well, that would make HIM dirty and defiled. The 10 Lepers respectfully, don't want to come into contact with Jesus, because they will defile him.
The first century Palestinian reader would acknowledge their cries FROM A DISTANCE, but horror of horrors, the first century reader would have been alarmed and mystified by the reaction of Jesus. Jesus, the clean one, the undefiled one, welcomes the lepers close, comes into contact with them and he heals them. Why would the undefiled Jesus welcome such external contact?
Why does Jesus not appear to be ritually defiled and unclean?
Or, consider the story of Jesus' contact with the woman who suffered from the bleeding, lo those many years. SHE was considered ritually unclean and defiled and she knew it too. That is one of the reasons why she sneaks up behind Jesus, to touch the hem of his garment. She did not want the ritually clean and undefiled Jesus to notice such contact and she did not want him to be reviled in horror at this external contact with the defiled. She did not want to contaminate HIM.
The first century reader of the gospel might react with anger and revulsion over the external contact between the defiled and undefiled, yet, the reader would have certainly been amazed by the reaction of Jesus.
Jesus does not recoil from such external contact, rather he wants to know who touched him, who it was who sapped him of some of his healing power. Why would the undefiled Jesus welcome such external contact? Why does Jesus not appear to be ritually defiled and unclean?
The answer to those questions becomes obvious in today's gospel reading.
First of all, it appears that Jesus does not view such people as defiled and unclean. Jesus certainly did not see the 10 Lepers as unclean and beyond his healing mercy. Jesus did not see the bleeding woman as unclean and beyond his healing mercy. Jesus does not believe that his disciples are unclean and defiled neither.
So, remarkably Jesus challenges the cleanliness rules of first century Judaism. Hand-washing has nothing to do with a person's standing before God, and improper hand-washing will not send you to hell
In addition to this, we understand that Jesus does not believe that external contact defiles HIM.
The defiled and the unclean can touch him all they want; it will not make him dirty or polluted. That too, was a radical claim.
Of course, we have to ask, WHY Jesus believed that defilement had nothing to do with external contact.
That answer, lays in the fact that Jesus believed that defilement was not an EXTERNAL phenomenon, but an INTERNAL phenomenon. Defilement had nothing to do with whom you were standing next to or who you were touching or who came into contact with you.
Jesus looks at the disciples and points to the HEART and he notes that defilement starts right there.
Now, maybe on the face of it, that doesn't seem to be a big deal, but in reality, it is a very big deal. Defilement comes from within, and Jesus brings us face to face with the phenomenon called SIN. The Pharisees didn't think that they were terrible sinners. Oh, they knew they were sinners alright, but it was nothing that a good hand-washing couldn't cure; it was nothing that keeping "good company," couldn't cure.
Except, it appears that Jesus is in total disagreement with the Pharisees. Good hand-washing is not going to cure a sinful heart; good company is not going to necessarily keep you from straying from the important laws, from God's laws.
So NOW what? If this is an INTERNAL process, what does that leave us with? If we can't wash our way to heaven, if we can't hob-nob with the right people and stay in God's good books, what can we possibly do? Is it ALL up to us?
Well, yes and no. Yes, it IS up to us, we are responsible for our own actions. We ARE sinners and we are plagued by our own sins and we may not be able to conjure up a disease or a syndrome to absolve us of responsibility.
The problem with this internal process is that while we bear responsibility for what is in our heart, WE cannot fix it on our own. In the end, we cannot work our way out of it, for we can never be good enough. Develop a good hand-washing system and someone will come along and challenge your system and then you will have to try and wash your hands better and more effectively. The goal posts will always be moving and we will never be good enough.
So now what?
All of this can get confusing. While this may be an INTERNAL process, we are left to understand that we are not capable of being right with God. We can’t do it on our own?
We are reminded that we are left to rely on the mercy and strength of the Lord. It is the strength and power of God which allows us to work on and try to perfect this internal process. But we will always need God’s help.
Jesus was very aware of our need of God. Yes, holiness and undefilement are an internal process, but Jesus also knew that there has to be an external as well, a very important external. It was HE, Jesus, who was that important external.
The disciples of Jesus could not contaminate HIM. The 10 lepers, the woman with the bleeding, you and I, cannot defile and contaminate Jesus, BUT, HE can clean us. He can take the defiled, the polluted, and turn them around and make them clean. In fact, Jesus welcomes that contact.
Today, as we come forward to the altar to celebrate Holy Communion, we come as those who continually struggle with our internal process, our internal demons.
To whom shall we go?
Jesus, the clean, the undefiled, welcomes us to come close to him. Jesus offers to come into our lives, deep into our existence, as close as bread and wine can come to being inside of us. He comes into our lives, welcomes the contact and promises to make us clean and undefiled.
And this has important consequences for us. Because Jesus welcomes us and promises to make us clean and undefiled, he CALLS us to welcome contact with those in our society whom some deem to be Unclean and defiled.
Sadly, there are lots of people in this world who are still considered UNCLEAN; people who are kept at a distance, people who cry out from afar. Who are those people?
Regardless of who they are, we are called to welcome contact; we are called to bring them from that distance they experience. We are called to bring them close and provide whatever ministry, comfort and solace we can. We are called to embrace everyone with the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
In joy Jesus wants us to go out and try our hardest to be doers of the word. He wants us to go out and try to live a life without blame. But if we fail, and we often do, he invites us to come back, to come close, to be healed and cleansed, again and again.
Cleansed by the precious blood of Jesus, he will send us out to proclaim his saving love and grace....again and again.