I can remember any number of instances during my childhood where my mother used those words: GO, WASH YOUR HANDS! You are familiar with a similar scene I am sure: the typical kids outside playing, in my case me and my two brothers; mom calls us to supper at which point we would all just rush into the kitchen and sit at the table waiting to be served. GO, WASH YOUR HANDS! we would hear my mother order and we would rush to the bathroom, wash our hands and return for dinner. Now, there was never a sub-plot to this series of actions – as far as I know. It was about hygiene, I am pretty sure. I don’t think there was an undercurrent of “Go wash your hands, or I won’t love you anymore.” In fact, I am pretty sure that what prompted the order was love – I love you, so, Go wash your hands – so you won’t get sick.
Now, having come up with this clever little introduction I should tell you that this text from the Gospel of St. Mark is really not about hand-washing; it references hand-washing – but is completely not about hygiene. However, it is about love – God’s love for all of us, and the clever ways people come up with in order to categorize and qualify this love of God’s.
1st of all I want to point out that this text is pretty much right in the center of the Gospel. St. Mark has 16 chapters – but chapter 16 only has 8 verses. So this exchange with the Pharisees and the story of the Syrophoenician woman are right in the center of the Gospel, which means that this is pretty important to Mark; how Mark and his community sees the Gospel is revealed here. So, then, let’s look at this passage again. Now, the lectionary kind of slices up the story a bit so I will recount the story but put the excised part back in. This passage immediately follows some of the great feeding stories – such as the feeding of the 5,000, and Jesus habit of dining with just about anyone who invited him, no matter who they were. So here we find Jesus with a group of religiously observant men (called Pharisees) and they ask Jesus why it is that he does not require his disciples to follow the purity laws as set forth in scripture and backed up by tradition.
One might have expected Jesus to turn to his disciples and say, HEY, WHAT’S WITH YOU GUYS? GO WASH YOUR HANDS. But instead he turns on the questioners. “You guys are such hypocrites.” He says, “you are so concerned about the rules and being externally pure that you have neglected to consider that inside you are not pure at all!”
I am sure the Pharisees were stunned by this response. “WOW. What is the big deal. It’s just something simple, right? – hand-washing for heaven’s sake…..” ahhh, But it’s not – Jesus continues, and in order to make the point crystal clear he adds an example: “You know the 4th commandment? Honor your mother and father? ---- ok ----- well, instead of honoring your mother and father you have managed to come up with all kinds of clever ways to get around this commandment. You have come up with loop holes, so you can justify treating your elderly parents in questionable ways and still remain technically in compliance with the commandment. And you are on my case about hand-washing?”
In other words, Jesus rejects – categorically rejects putting rules over people – even scriptural rules! He condemns these pious, religious folks for being so concerned about following the rules that they have put people, other human beings as being secondarily important. If it comes down to following the rule – or hurting other people, rejecting other people – well follow the rule, the Pharisees position is. To this Jesus says a strong and unequivocal NO. God’s priorities are people first and if the rules are causing hurt and misery and exclusion, then you either need to reinterpret or throw out the rules!
This is a radical statement! It is no wonder that Jesus made himself lots of enemies. There are vested interests in keeping society divided and maintaining divisions and fear and mistrust and even hate amongst people. Too often, we like to categorize and find ways of putting others down and lifting ourselves up. We human beings like to think that we are the chosen ones, but those others over there – those other Christians who understand and do things differently – well, they are not really one of us; so they are not really Christians. Jesus bluntly rejects this way of thinking – with his usual lack of subtlety.
But not only that, in order to make this point nice and clear Mark follows up this exchange of words between Jesus and the Pharisee with an incident which puts all of this into action. Now, what follows is the Gospel text for next week. I don’t really want to give things away, but I won’t be here next week to deliver part 2 of this sermon – so – here it is: Mark follows up this exchange with the Pharisees about hand-washing with the story of his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus encounters this Gentile woman who begs him to come and heal her daughter who had an unclean spirit. We would expect Jesus to go immediately, right – wrong – he doesn’t; he first engages in this little conversation with her. He tells her that healing this girl would be akin to throwing the children’s food to the dogs since he he Jewish and she is Gentile. Yes, she responds, but even the dogs may eat some of the scrapes that fall from the table. And he heals the girl!
This is a harsh exchange, but it follows directly the exchange over hand-washing. This woman was outside the community, she was unclean, she was unacceptable, she was considered a non-person by these religious folks. Jesus points this out to her (and to his disciples and followers) and then he reaches out to her and touches her and heals her daughter. Jesus is demonstrating through this action that people are God’s first priority! Human beings are the crown of God’s creation and it is people whom God loves. In another part of the Gospel Jesus says: “the Sabbath was made for people; not people for the Sabbath.” We could rephrase this: “the law was made for people, not people for the law;” or even “the liturgy was made for people, not people for the liturgy.” How many of us find ourselves from time to time siding with the Pharisees in exchanges and putting, or being inclined to put rules and tradition above people. How many of us find ourselves from time to time being willing to sacrifice a few people for the sake of our religious convictions? The word of the Gospel today is for you and me and any of us whenever we are tempted in this manner: God loves people; God reaches out to save people; Jesus was crucified for all humanity.
This is my last Sunday among you. You and this parish of St. Matthew’s have been a part of my life for 11 years. I will miss you all very much. But I will tell you that my returning to parish ministry would not have happened without you, as God gave me a renewed sense of call as a result of working here in your midst. I thank you for that. You will all continue in my thoughts and prayers, and I hope and pray the wait for a new rector will come to a happy conclusion very soon.
In closing let me also say that I pray that you will always remember that it is God who saves us by his grace and love and that this grace and love is big enough for all. For, as St. Paul puts it: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord; and all equally heirs according to His promise.”
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