And he (Jesus) said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’” (Mark 7:6 ESV). With Jesus speaks to the heart of the matter as He addresses our hypocrisies today and calls us out to draw near to Him with our whole hearts. Today at International Lutheran Church, we focus on the invitation that Jesus extends to us in the gospel lesson from Mark 7:1-13 even as He addresses the ways in which we can easily oppose His ministry among us. You will want to read this Scripture before the following.
The idea of an argument over “clean hands” as mentioned in these opening verses of Mark 7 means a lot of different things today during the current worldwide pandemic. We might be thinking of the importance of public and personal safety, a specific general health protocol that should not just be used in a restaurant, or a simple way to prevent contamination and further spread of the latest strain of the virus. But in Jesus' day, something entirely different might have come to mind as the scribes and Pharisees criticized the disciples for not washing their hands before they ate.
We should take care to keep in mind a few things as we look at this story in the life of Jesus and Mark's gospel. Firstly, the mention of criticism or opposition to Jesus is not something new in the story. But we are now in a part of the life and ministry of Jesus that meets greater and greater negative responses to His actions or questions about His identity. Many miracles continue to be recorded, such as the healing of anyone who touched Him (Mark 6:53-56); the sudden and unexplainable transportation of Jesus across the sea, namely His walking on water (Mark 6:45-52); and the feeding of thousands with just a few fish and five loaves of bread (Mark 6:30-44). All of these events point to the divinity of Jesus, yet we also have witnessed how the radical nature of Jesus’ presence and His own self interpretation given in John 6:51 (“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”) was itself difficult to swallow for even the followers. The section in John 6 that comes between the miracles and Jesus’ hard sayings ends with the question to the Twelve as the throng was departing from Him, "What about you?" Peter's bold but simple response, "Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" helps us see it wasn't easy for them either.
Secondly, while it is easy to criticize or see the scribes and Pharisees as the most radical example of extreme rules for daily living, these groups of teachers were admired for their dedication and their serious and rigorous attempts to make the law of Moses accessible to the common person. We may be tempted to quickly dismiss them as the "bad guys" but in Jesus' day their words and actions were revered by many as faithful. They were the teachers and leaders whose lives were an example of faithfulness and fidelity. They were those that tried to live by the word of God alone, not being swayed by popular culture or outside influences on the Jewish faith. They were the ones who “kept the old ways” and made them accessible to the masses. Tradition and teaching those traditions were the very means by which the faith was passed from one generation to the next.
Thirdly, tradition in and of itself is not evil. Sometimes we hear the word tradition and immediately we have a lot of negative thoughts. Yet we all rely on our traditions to form our very identity even today. Each person, each family, each community, people, culture and nation is made up of traditions, set ways for us to express ourselves as well as understand our everyday experiences. Language and culture are made up of traditions. These norms form our identity and make us who we are. Some even become so engrained they are like a habit. Like the Korean tradition of holding your elbow or forearm as you extend your hand to receive a gift or offer a welcome to the person shows that you honor the person with whom you are engaging. Just as important as it is to learn other people’s cultures and traditions, we often don’t notice the importance of our own until we see someone doing it differently. This is maybe why traditions can create barriers and stumbling blocks to effective communication. What we “do” can annoy or even offend someone else without our intention.
The “baptism” or washing of cups or hands may seem a trivial matter to us, but to those whose own purity is dependent on this simple but profound daily reminder of our Holy God and our need to “be holy as He is Holy” (Leviticus 19:2), it seems that Jesus has just upset the entire apple cart. Far from it! He came to be baptized with the baptism we could never endure! In order for us to be made holy and pure the one and only righteous Lamb of God without blemish would spill His blood on the cross for the cleansing of our sins. Jesus’ strict and righteous anger is focused on our deplorable attempt to make our own actions somehow become our main concern. We replace the Word and promise of God’s forgiveness with the idea that we need to do something to make ourselves right with God. Christian baptism (baptism into Jesus) is a radical and amazing gift because it is not about us, but about Him. He washes us! He purifies us! Not with water only but with His holy blood! Through the water and the Word, He makes you and me into a new creation, vessels for His life giving Gospel to be displayed. Even through our brokenness, our weakness, our frailty, God acts to show His pure and holy grace and love to all.
In Jesus, our love and honor of father and mother, wife or husband, as imperfect as it is, becomes the very way in which others see the mercy and grace of God shared into their lives. In our vocations, we serve God by serving our neighbor. We love God through loving our neighbor, no matter who they are: family member, friend, co-worker, classmate, or even a complete stranger. While our actions and words may at times betray us, Jesus has come to wash us in His blood and present us as the object of His great affection to all the world!