14th Sunday after Pentecost (B)
Deut 4:1-2,6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
This text is about holy and unholy, Godly and ungodly, even the sources of good and evil. We’ve been led to believe that avoiding unholy things makes you more holy. That not doing evil things will make us good. That doesn’t get at the root cause of unholiness or the source of evil. But we keep trying. That’s why some have interjected views of righteousness and holiness into politics. If you vote with us you’re on the side of good. Vote with them and you are wrong, evil, and responsible for the demise of all things good and holy. When good and evil are made into philosophies or views or political action, we are avoiding what Jesus is telling us here. But, oh, if only it were that simple.
That’s why religion is big business. Behave in certain ways and you are aligned with the will of God. Yes, you can know joy in your marriage if you follow God’s seven steps to a holy relationship. Or send a check to this address and you will be rid of the demons that are making you ill. Or die in a holy cause and you will live forever in the arms of God. Or believe correctly and you can avoid the eternal fires of hell. When good and evil are made into beliefs or behaviors, we are avoiding what Jesus is telling us here. But, oh, of only it were that simple.
This is what the Pharisees and scribes think too. They would teach that the things that were unclean could be made clean through outward actions. Something could be made holy if it went through special purification rituals. This was important. As distinct from all other nations, the Hebrews were given specific instructions concerning cleanness and how to recover it when it had been lost through carelessness or disobedience. The Jews recognized themselves as “a holy people, God’s own people,” and therefore holiness was an important part of their life. Care had to be taken to make sure they remained holy, because holiness was of God, and unholiness was against God. So traditions and rituals developed over the centuries. Different interpretations of these customs evolved, and debates were held around the issue of holiness. The Pharisees were instructors to the people in the laws of holiness, and their interpretations were taken very seriously.
So it was an issue of their very identity as the people of God when people who claimed to be Jews ate unholy food with unholy hands. If you are God’s people, recognize that food is a gift of life from God and treat it as such! Receive it with holy hands! Follow the customary rituals of washing so that unclean, unholy food won’t make you unholy. Your standing with God is at stake! Dress better and you’ll be a better person.
The thinking was that the ordinary, the common, was unclean. If something unclean touched something clean, the clean would be defiled and no longer for God, no longer holy.
But Jesus’ response goes a new direction. Jesus says that evil doesn’t come about from touching unpurified things. Rather, it comes from the sinful nature that’s part of who we are. And so, going through rituals to make things clean and holy cannot make a person holy, because it doesn’t get at the source of the unholiness. You can’t come closer to God through actions beginning on the outside of you any more than adding purified water would cleanse e-coli contaminated water. People who are religious are just as sinful as those who aren’t. It’s much deeper that beliefs or actions.
Worship, prayer, belief, Bible study, kindness, political affiliation, voting record, generosity, good moral character, a specific dress code – none of these make us holier, better, or closer to God. These are external things, outside of us. These are hand-washing actions and cannot begin to touch the sinful nature that exists in our hearts, the very core of our identity.
It’s not what we do that makes us holy or unholy, good or evil. If that were the case, then all we’d have to do was quit doing bad things and we’d all be cured. Quit fighting and wars would stop. Be kind to others and your world would be a kinder place. Stop being self-centered and you would be happier. Dress better and global warming is stopped.
But we know those things don’t work. We’ve been trying it since Genesis 3 and it hasn’t worked yet. Being good can’t begin on the outside. Jesus says we have to get at the source, the heart. That can’t come from what we do. It has to come from God. And that is what Jesus is all about. His purpose here is not to show us a new, improved way to behave. It isn’t to give us good moral instruction. As God the Son, the holiest of the holy, Jesus came amongst the unholy, the sinful to make us holy. He came to bring us into God’s own holiness. He came to touch us with his holiness, to give us a new and holy heart. He came amongst us to take on the power of evil – at its very core, within us – and make it holy. And he came to give that new and holy heart to us. In him we are made holy. As he changes us from within we are made holy.
Of course, not everything about us is unholy and evil. We are created in the image of God and have capacity for great goodness and selfless compassion. But I believe his point is that holiness changes unholiness. The holy touches the unholy, the clean touches the unclean, the right and good and generous and merciful touches the corrupt, the self-centered, the evil – and it is changed.
That is the hope of the world. That’s how the world will change – as God continues to touch it in holiness. As God continues to touch us.
Jesus comes amongst us to touch us with holiness. And then to call us, as people made holy, to touch others with that same holiness. We show compassion and love and mercy and forgiveness to each other and the world, not to become holier people, but to make the world a holier place.