Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 08/30/2015

After a few weeks away, today we return to Mark’s gospel but it kind of feels like we’ve arrived in the middle of a family argument, something of a food fight actually, with accusations of hands not being washed, food not being washed, cups and pots and kettles not properly washed. It makes you want to say, “Maybe this is a bad time; we’ll come back later.” Part of the reluctance to get involved has to do with the fact that what they’re arguing about doesn’t seem all that important apart from having to do with common sense hygiene. Because of the sense that this doesn’t have much to do with us, we likely overlook the significance of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who were making these accusations as well as overlooking the controversy created by his response.

The controversial part of Jesus’ response was, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile,” and then he goes into a laundry list of sins. It’s the first part though, that would have gotten the attention of the Pharisees. We might not hear much in “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” but remember that in the Torah there are extensive sections containing laws regarding what is clean and unclean, who is clean and unclean; so what might sound inoffensive to us could also be understood by a devout Jew to strike at the very heart of the Torah. It could be seen to pose a challenge to the authority of the those texts and a challenge to the presumed authority of Moses because what Jesus seems to be saying is that all those laws that are such a part of the tradition don’t really matter.

In fact, that is exactly how Jesus’ words have been interpreted, at least by some. With his statement Jesus has been understood to be establishing a radical break from Judaism thus placing himself and anyone who followed him outside the Jewish community, outside the accepted system of sacrifice and forgiveness which would represent a disregard for at least parts of the Torah. As Christianity later evolved, a verse like this could be and was used to make the claim that Christianity rendered Judaism obsolete as opposed to Christianity being understood as a continuation and reinterpretation of Judaism, another branch of the old religion, not something brand new.

While the “radical break” interpretation of what Jesus said is legitimate, based on other times when Jesus crossed boundaries, it’s not the only possible interpretation. Jesus is frequently reported to have eaten with people who would not have observed all the rituals regarding who and what was clean or unclean. Very early in Mark, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, an action which, in the eyes of the Pharisees, made Jesus himself unclean, thus calling into question everything he did.

In that case, Jesus had to know that by eating with these outsiders he opened himself to ridicule from the religious leaders, but his action was not necessarily a rejection of the Torah laws of clean and unclean. It was more a subordination of those laws in order to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near and to extend the kind of welcome that is part of the inbreaking kingdom. In that case the point wasn’t to render the laws irrelevant, only to say that sometimes there are other things that are more important.

This is more consistent with how Jesus dealt with other parts of the Torah. The commandment concerning observance of the Sabbath was an important marker in Judaism and Jesus’ certainly had no intention of abolishing it, but on occasion he did subordinate it. When you read the gospels it can sometimes seem like every healing Jesus did was on the Sabbath when no work was to be done, which always aggravated the Pharisees, but Jesus intent wasn’t to aggravate (or maybe it was, who knows). The healings though, helped to proclaim and make known the reign of God breaking into the world and for Jesus that proclamation was the most important thing even if it violated the prohibition from doing work on the Sabbath.

The same thing happened with “Honor your father and mother.” In one story Jesus makes the call to “Follow me,” and the response is “Let me first go bury my father,” which doesn’t seem unreasonable. But Jesus said to this individual, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Again, the intent is not to abolish the commandment or to say that honoring your parents doesn’t matter, only to say that proclaiming the kingdom comes before everything else, even important family obligations.

For us, our default setting when texts like this come up is to side with Jesus against those nitpicking Pharisees. What we have to remember though is that, at least to some extent, we are those Pharisees. They were the defenders of their tradition, tradition was important to them and for many of us our traditions are just as important; it might just depend on what part of the tradition you’re talking about.

For example, in some Lutheran churches these days the pastor doesn’t wear the traditional robes or vestments, just a jacket and tie, maybe something even less formal in the summer; would that offend you? It’s not just clergy; along the same line I know that some are bothered by how casually parishioners dress for church compared to years ago.

Worship traditions have changed as well. In some churches the liturgy has become much less formal, parts of it omitted. For example, as Bishop Skrenes visits churches he says that there are some where even the creed is omitted. The creed has been a pretty important part of the tradition for a long time but some now see it as an obstacle to faith so it’s not included. Music of course is another issue with guitars and drums replacing the organ in some churches, traditional hymns scrapped for something more contemporary all of which is OK for some, upsetting for others.

Maybe I haven’t hit on what it is that might bother you if it were changed or omitted, but maybe it helps you to better understand the perspective of the Pharisees. They do get portrayed unfavorably, but they weren’t just nitpickers. Maybe thinking about our own traditions helps to better understand where they were coming from and we think about which parts of the tradition are central and ought not be changed, which are negotiable.

The litmus test for Jesus had to do with proclamation of the gospel, announcing the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. What then happens, is that in light of that priority, if necessary, other laws become secondary. For Jesus, that meant that scripture could be reinterpreted; it didn’t have to be taken literally and the traditional understanding could be questioned. The text could be reinterpreted, and for us that might be the most important thing to take away from this.

If the Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Right here in Exodus it talks about hand washing,” Jesus would have to acknowledge that they were right. If they said, “The commandment on the Sabbath as recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy clearly says that no work is to be done” again, Jesus would have to say that they were right. They knew their scripture.

For Jesus though, as important as those laws were, making the kingdom known was more important. That meant that proclaiming things like justice and forgiveness, compassion and welcome was more important than a literal interpretation of scripture and strict observance of the law, at least if strict observance became an obstacle to proclamation and revelation of a gracious God.

I found it interesting that while I was working on this sermon last Wednesday there was a piece on the radio about how only about 30% of the people in Ireland attend Mass these days, down from 90% not too many years ago. What was called the most Catholic country in the world isn’t so Catholic anymore. The clergy abuse scandal along with its cover-up has a lot to do with people drifting from the church, but as one of the priests interviewed said, “For centuries the church has been preaching a God of the law, and that just doesn’t work anymore.” I would say that not only doesn’t it work, but that’s not what Jesus intended and it never was.

Jesus himself used a different lens to look at scripture and I think that gives us permission to do the same thing. To proclaim the Bible properly we have to interpret. As Lutherans, at least as ELCA Lutherans, the lens we use is grace. If a text seems to run contrary to grace it doesn’t render that text irrelevant, but it does call for another look. If someone says to us, “But the Bible says…” we have to say, “You’re right, it does.” But looking at the broader message of grace, some texts become subordinate to others even if the tradition seems to be threatened. That’s the model of interpretation Jesus gave us.

The balance between tradition and change is always a delicate one, one not to be taken lightly, particularly when it come to interpreting the Bible. Our interpretive choices aren’t always easy, but staying focused on Jesus and what was important to him will help us to make the choices that will make his kingdom known.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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