Fifteen Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17

After six weeks reading about the “Bread of life” in John’s, we are back today in Mark’s Gospel. I don’t know how you feel about it, but when I had a look at this text, I had a sense I had already almost forgotten about Mark’s style. It is indeed very different from John: John is very meditative, giving us long discourses, sometimes it’s even a little hard to know exactly what he is talking about. Mark, on the other side, is always telling concrete stories, very detail oriented. And our Gospel today is indeed detail oriented and at first glance, it could seem almost trivial. After all, it’s about washing hands and, our lectionary cut off the more down to earth verses, actually it’s about “what enters the stomach and goes out in the sewer”. So maybe we can be tempted to think that there is not much theology in that.

Yet, when it comes down to the word of God, we should know we need to beware of what may seem deceivingly simple. Mark’s Gospel, even if in a different way than John’s, also invites us to meditation, and I was actually surprised to realize how, studying this text, from one level of understanding to another, I was taken deeper and deeper into ethical reflection – and this is some of those reflections I would like to share with you today.

The first level of understanding of this Gospel is quite obvious. It is about the difference between true and false religion. Though quite obvious, this is not a level of understanding that should be overlooked. I felt quite concerned this week, even troubled and shocked, hearing about another scandal in the church with the terrible child abuses committed by priests. When we hear about that I guess a lot of us wonder, as I did: “How is it possible that religious people would do that?”. It is so ugly and immoral, some Christians may be tempted to walk away from the church. Indeed, they are right to feel offended. Jesus points out to religious people that rites are only rites and do not mean much if they are not followed by actions of justice and goodness. James reminds us that being religious is not only about hearing the word of God, but it is about doing God’s will. James refers specifically to the care of “orphans and widows”, who were the most vulnerable people in his society. If we don’t act in a way that honors the most powerless, then our religion is vain.

It does not mean that religion is vain in itself, though. Religion is important, as it is the vehicle of God’s words and sacraments, the place where by tradition and Scriptures we come closer to know God. Yet, religion is a body of things: hearing and doing. Rites and behavior. Prayer and Justice. This is what our collect today underscores, asking God to: “Increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness AND bring forth in us the fruit of good works”. Religion calls us to wholeness. Indeed, there is nothing more terrible than somebody who pretends to be religious but does not behave with righteousness, it can bear false testimony against the church, faith and even against God! How many victims of abuse by priests say they have lost their faiths! We may not commit that kind of offenses, yet it is a serious warning for all of us as Christians: We need to be very careful about the kind of testimony we bring into the world by our actions.

The second level of understanding of our Gospel goes deeper into the ethical reflection in the sense that it does not only describe what religion should be ideally, but it reveals some of the flaws of our behaviors as religious people. The Pharisees today are put into question by Jesus because they look at the outside, instead of looking on the inside. It means two things:

First of all, the Pharisees focus on physical appearance instead of looking at the heart. It may happen to a lot of us that we judge somebody on their looks, and indeed if somebody looks dirty, as did the disciples who apparently did not wash their hands, we can easily act defiant towards them, thinking there is something wrong with them. To be honest, it is the reason why we often hesitate to engage with the homeless. Because of lack of commodities, most of them look dirty and so we assume that they are dangerous or, at least, cannot be trusted. Like the Pharisees, we make judgments based on what we see, and then we generalize and make assumptions. The Pharisees say of the disciples that: “They do not live according to the tradition of the elders”. Well, I don’t know what you think, but it seems to me a huge stretch when what happened is that the Pharisees just did not see the disciples wash their hands! But how often do we do that as well? Making assumptions and generalizations about others, based on their sex, social class or race. We are often very prompt to judge.

Yet, looking at the outside instead of looking on the inside, is not only about making quick judgments about others based on their appearances. What Jesus also notices is that the Pharisees look at others – to criticize – instead of looking at themselves – to correct their behaviors. James reminds us that true religion is about being able to look at ourselves in a mirror, even if it does not please us. You know, we live in a society not that different than the society in which Jesus lived: There is always this fear to be contaminated by what comes from outside. We have many hygiene rules to protect our assumed integrity from diseases coming from the outside. Yet, Jesus reminds us that, in the case of sin, it starts in our own hearts, on the inside. What we really need to work on is ourselves, instead of trying to change others. It can be easy to forget when a lot of wrong things happen in the world. We can be tempted to waste a lot of time criticizing or just feeling very discouraged. Yet there is something we can always change, it’s ourselves. We can “Be the change we want to see in the world”, as the famous saying by Gandhi goes. So, maybe next time we feel like we want to criticize someone, we could look inside of us to see what it actually says about us. For example, maybe, like the Pharisees, we don’t like careless people only because we are too rigid?

The third level of understanding of our Gospel is harder to see, and I think I would probably not have paid attention to it, if it hadn’t been because of the news. Because what I think this story is ultimately about is about people who want to assert their power by making others feel inadequate and dirty. And this is what sexual abuse and sex offenders do to their victims: they make them feel “dirty”: shameful and guilty. Sexual aggression is not so much about sex, it’s about having power over people, making them feel less than they are, humiliating them. It does not only happen in case of sexual abuse, it is a very painful realization to see how, throughout history, we have made one another feel dirty: Dirty because of race or religion or social class, dirty because of sexual orientation. Well, Jesus’s consistent teaching is that it is nothing on the outside that can make us dirty. Not who we are, and not what people do to us. In a verse that our lectionary skips, Mark says that “Jesus declares all food clean”, but more than that I think, as Jesus refers to the process of digestion, I think what he does is to declare human bodies and bodily functions clean. Jesus touched even the lepers. Sickness does not make us dirty, as surely as being a victim of abuse, rape or rejection does not make us dirty in God’s eyes.

So what does make us clean or unclean?

Well, clearly it’s sin that makes us unclean. Jesus today gives us a list of those sins: “fornication, theft, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly”. All those sins describe a variation on what sin is: a breaking of relationships with other people by judging them, attacking them, abusing them. The uncleanliness we see in others starts often in our own heart, when we fail to see their real beauty, to respect their sacredness as persons, when we treat them as objects, and deny life in them. There was this poster in the Metro at some point of a victim of abuse saying: “I am not the one who should be ashamed”. Well, I think this is very true. Uncleanliness is about the wrong we do to others, not about the wrong done to us.

And so in the end, I think that what our Gospel tells us today is that we don’t sin so much when we break a rule or a tradition, we sin when we break people. We don’t sin when we break a rule or a tradition, we sin when we break people. Jesus often reminded people that God’s commandments (the ones we hear about in our first reading) are not so much a list of things to obey, the commandment is a commandment to love. If love “commands”, it means that love should come first, in all we say, do and in the way we look at the world and at one another. It means love is also the way we need to look at those who offend us and sin against us, by not limiting them and denying in them the possibility of new life and redemption – but that would be for another sermon. Amen.

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