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Wasting Our Time

A Homily from Mark 7:1-23

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia Highland Church

August 31, 2003 (22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Our gospel lesson for today takes place in the midst of Jesus’ miraculous acts of healing. Having fed thousands, Jesus crossed the sea into another region of Israel only to be immediately recognized by the people who lived there. Mark tells us that people came from all over the area, carrying the injured and the ill on makeshift stretchers and anything they could find. In the big cities, in the small towns, and even in the countryside – wherever Jesus went – there were people laid out along the roadside and in the town squares hoping to be healed.

And they were. Every single person who came into contact with him was healed. That must have been something to see. People who could not walk leaping into the air and dancing. Men and women who had been blind since birth opening their eyes, and seeing as their first image the face of the Son of God. Skin that had been blistered and scaly suddenly becoming as smooth as an infants.

Most of us would have been stunned speechless by such a sight. Not so for the most pious believers of the day. It is an indicator that preachers haven’t changed much in 2,000 years that the Pharisees and other religious leaders felt obligated to meet with Jesus and give him their opinion of his ministry.

I think I know what I would have asked, “Can I do that too?” After all, whole crowds of people were being healed simply by touching Jesus’ cloak. Supposedly incurable diseases were vanquished at a glance. If one religious teacher could do it, perhaps others could! But that wasn’t what the Pharisees wanted to know.

Maybe they were more thinkers than doers. Academic types who wanted to understand the “why” of things rather than the “how.” Questions like “What does it mean that people here will be healed and others far away will not?” and “How does healing the body equate to healing the soul?” would have been perfectly appropriate. But that wasn’t what the good, bible-believing folk of Jesus’ day asked Him.

Faced with the astonishing and complete healing of perhaps thousands of people, they had one simple question for him. “Jesus, why don’t you and your disciples wash your hands before you eat?” That’s right. They watched as Jesus’ hands touched a crippled leg and straightened it, and the only thought they had was “He didn’t wash that hand before he went and ate with it.”

This is not unlike walking past a homeless shelter, and complaining that the teenagers who gave up their Friday night to hand out meals there have body piercings.

Yet the question was not wholly without merit. The Jewish people were the bearers of a sacred trust, a unique, covenantal relationship with God. Their scriptures preserved ancient teachings on the importance of placing holy priorities over personal desires or expediency.

Out of those teachings had evolved various practices that served as daily reminders of the obligations and heritage of being part of the people of God. One such practice was performing a ritual hand-washing before a meal; a practice which Jesus and his followers did not observe.

Jesus responds to their concerns with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. “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” [Isa 29:13 LXX]. Jesus adds, “You abandon the commandment of God, and hold to human tradition.”

These are pretty strong words. To paraphrase the prophet, when we say the right things but act according to our own wishes rather than God’s will, our worship is a “waste of time.” Although I’ve read that passage several times before, that little snippet struck me particularly hard when I read it last week.

“Wasting our time.” Each year, I realize more clearly that – of all the things I squander – the thing that I can least afford to waste is time. I don’t want to waste time, and I particularly don’t want to waste time that I’ve set aside for worshipping God, serving God, or seeking to better understand the will of God. Those are acts with eternal significance and even eternal consequences, I don’t want them to be empty, meaningless or wasted.

But Jesus says that any time we place human tradition over the priorities of God and then claim we are doing God’s will, we might as well not even bother. On the surface, that seems like a pretty simple rule to follow; but it doesn’t take much digging to realize that the underlying issues are complex ones. For most of us, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian is much more heavily influenced by the general cultural consensus of Christianity than it is by prayer and study of the Bible.

You’ll forgive me, hopefully, for going the obvious route here and choosing the first of two examples that I will use from our neighboring state of Alabama. There, thousands of Christians have descended on the building that houses the state Supreme Court to protest the removal of a monument to the Ten Commandments which had been placed in the rotunda of that building.

The judge who placed that monument did so claiming that it was a testimony to the fact that our nation was founded on those Commandments, and that our nation has a Christian identity. Several things frighten me about a powerful judge making such a profoundly ignorant statement, but perhaps one of the scariest aspects of his “Christian” nation crusade is that the judge is a baptist.

Virginia-Highland Church is a baptist church which is proud of and faithful to its baptist heritage, so I realize that I’m preaching to the choir here. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to point out that – until very recently – the vast majority of baptists understood that a “Christian” nation is an impossibility, and that providing any kind of state sanction for organized religion impedes the gospel rather than supporting it.

The gospel of Christ, the message of the realm of heaven, is not one of secular laws and political governments. One cannot legislate the gospel, nor can any system of laws fully provide for the freedom and obligations that come from faithfulness to Christ.

Yet this rogue judge from Alabama and his supporters want to do that and more. For them, the heart of Christianity is in a particular interpretation of a code of behaviors and rules. If they can force those rules (along with their interpretation) on the government – then they will be making the nation a more Christian place. They are so passionate about this belief that they are giving up hundreds of hours of time to acts of protest and civil disobedience. They are risking their jobs and even their freedom to preserve a symbol that proclaims this a “Christian” nation.

They are wasting their time. The constitutional arguments for why they are wrong are not a part of this text, but I cannot help but note that even the most straightforward reading of the First Amendment makes it clear that our government cannot endorse any particular theological viewpoint.

More importantly, though, those fighting for the Ten Commandments are wasting their time because they are making the error of the Pharisees. They are pouring their energy and their precious time into promoting legalism, when they should be focusing on the life-transforming, good news of faith in Jesus Christ. I’ve read and watched the interviews with the protesters, and they clearly believe they are doing the Lord’s work. They believe that, because they are behaving as they’ve been taught “Christians” should act. In truth, such behavior has less to do with Christianity than it does with the socially conservative Southern culture that they have appended to it.

The second example that Jesus gives his disciples shows how this can lead to hypocrisy. Jesus says, “You know that it says in the commandments to honor your father and mother. But then, you use the complex rules around designating offerings to justify why you cannot afford to give financial support to your parents.”

In other words, it is easy to fall into the trap of picking and choosing what traditions we follow, and allowing our traditions to actually keep us from doing what we understand the will of God to be. That leads me to my second example from Alabama. The governor of that state has introduced a sweeping fiscal proposal called “Amendment One.” Amendment One will require 1.2 billion dollars in taxes and fiscal shifts for the people of Alabama.

The governor believes that this pricey plan is necessary because of his Christian principles of fairness and charity. He believes that the poor of Alabama are being ill-served at the expense of the rich, and that Jesus would not approve. (He also believes that the Ten Commandments belong in the rotunda of the Supreme Court building – but no one’s perfect.)

The interesting thing about Amendment One is that supporting it is much more closely aligned to the teachings of Jesus than getting arrested for a rock carving in a government building. Yet when we turn on the news, where are most Christian leaders focusing their time and their energy? What is the hot topic for the most popular Christian preachers and teachers? What are people willing to stake their resources and their freedom on? Like the Pharisees, they choose easy tradition over expensive faithfulness.

That is not to say that their motives are necessarily selfish or evil. Many of our traditions, like those of the Pharisees, exist for a reason. They are often a result of good people trying to do what is right in a particular circumstance. When we elevate those traditions over the clear obligations of the teachings of Jesus, however, we are wasting our time.

In fact, Jesus goes beyond simply criticizing tradition. Jesus directly contradicts and overrides the clear teaching of the Law – the clear teaching of the Bible. Jesus says, “There is nothing outside a person that can defile them.” Nothing from outside us can make us spiritually unclean. It is what is within our hearts that makes us unclean.” He goes on to say that food goes into our mouths and passes through our bodies without touching our spirits. It cannot defile us.

This is an explicit contradiction to the written word of God – no two ways around it. The Bible calls eating unclean foods an “abomination” to God [Lev 20:25]. Yet Jesus Christ, the living word of God, says that in the big picture what we eat doesn’t matter. It’s who we are inside that matters.

That poses all sorts of thorny theological and interpretive issues. If even the Law as preserved by our ancestors is not absolute, then how can we learn what God desires of us? What is absolute?

The scriptures are clearly relevant, because those are what Jesus uses to prove his point. In interpreting them, however, He does not rely on legalism or even literalism. Jesus tells us that an action is neither right nor wrong because it violates a particular code. An action can only be right or good if it comes from a pure heart.

It would be easier if Jesus had just left us with the Mosaic Law, because then everything would have been cut and dry. There would have been a clear standard for knowing if we were “good” or “righteous.” Instead Jesus sets the bar much higher, telling us to look at the purity of our hearts, instead of the points of the Law. You’ll note the long tally of indicators of an impure heart which Jesus provides: “Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly.”

That’s a pretty long list. Looking to our hearts rather than a rule book, therefore, does not free us from an objective standard. It simply means that the standard moves beyond a moral checklist to the living person of Jesus, the Son of God.

That sounds good in the abstract, but the Pharisees’ question is about what we are to do. What is the practical meaning of Jesus’ teachings? How are we to act in our daily lives? Where should we focus our priorities? How should we spend our time? What is right and wrong?

We’ve looked at Jesus’ answer, and it’s not simple. For instance, we know it was right for those who followed Moses to observe certain dietary laws; but Jesus said we don’t have to. It appears that it was right for the Pharisees to come up with traditions to reinforce their teachings: but Jesus said those traditions can actually keep us from being faithful. Is there nothing, then, that is always right?

Perhaps not as often as we might like. There are, however, a few principles, that are consistent throughout Scripture. One is that the right thing to do is rarely the easy thing to do. Another is that giving priority to that which is holy rarely serves our own selfish needs or desires. A third is that we never see Jesus harming anyone anywhere in the Gospels.

Taking that into account, we can’t simply say “anything goes.” Even after rejecting the legalism of the Pharisees, Jesus still gives us a very specific list of some of the things that are clearly wrong and that are symbolic of an impure heart. For those looking for an itemized list of what not to do, that’s a good starting place.

Nevertheless, if we are to be more like Jesus and less like the Pharisees, we cannot settle for just a list. As Christians, we are called to a higher and more difficult standard. Our actions will be judged, not by whether or not we did what we were told was right; but by whether or not our hearts were pure.