Our readings this morning all share a common theme: how do we live out our faith? A straightforward question that does not necessarily have a straightforward answer, and in fact raises additional questions. How do we take what we hear in church and apply it to the messy reality of our lives the other six days of the week? How do we take ideas and beliefs that were first expressed in a very different time and place, halfway around the world two thousand years ago, and apply them to our 21st century lives here in the Bay Area? What do we do when one set of ideas or beliefs clashes with another set of ideas and beliefs, and yet they both come from the Bible? Today’s readings wrestle with these questions, even if they do not always fully answer them.
Our first reading comes from the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. Today’s passage is part of Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites, which he gave shortly before his death and before the Israelites entered into the Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for forty years. In his speech, Moses reminds the people of where they have come from, what God has done for them, and what God has promised to do for them if they remain a faithful people and follow the commandments that God has given them. Hence the repeated emphasis on remembering these commandments and handing them down to your children and your children’s children. Every time we read the scriptures out loud in church we are participating in this unbroken chain stretching back through the centuries to when Moses gave this command. Thus, one way we live out our faith is by remembering what our forbearers taught us about God and the commandments that God has given to us.
Our second reading today comes from the beginning of the letter of James in the New Testament. This letter, along with letters written by the Apostle Paul and other early Christian leaders, deals with the topic of how to put our Christian beliefs into practice. The letter of James has been traditionally associated with James of Jerusalem, a.k.a. James the brother of Jesus. This particular James is not the one we hear frequently mentioned in Gospels, and in fact this particular James did not even become a follower of Christ until after Jesus’ resurrection, when (according to Paul) he received a personal visit from the risen Lord. After that James quickly rose to prominence in the Christian community, eventually become bishop of the church in Jerusalem.
James was often called “James the Just,” due to his great piety and the constant help he provided to the poor. His efforts in Jerusalem helped to grow the church to the point that the Jewish High Priest ordered that he publicly recant his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, which James refused to do. In response, James was hurled to his death from the wall of the Temple and his body beaten by the crowd below. James’ reputation was so strong that even devout Jews in Jerusalem denounced his death and the Romans sought to punish the High Priest for his actions. (Reza Aslan, Zealot, Ch. 15.)
In the reading we heard today, James talks about several topics that he will discuss in more detail in the rest of the letter. First is the gift of the Father: everything good comes from God. We hear this echoed in our opening prayer today, which describes God as “the author and giver of all good things.” Second, James cautions us to be quick to listen/slow to speak/slow to anger. We heard an echo of this in today’s gospel reading as well, when Jesus proclaimed it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. Third, James calls for us to put away what leads one astray in order to make room for the Word of God. Fourth, James tells us that hearers of the Word must become doers of the Word. And finally, James warns that a religion that embraces the values of the world is worthless, but that a religion that embraces the values of God and puts them into practice is the true faith.
The letter of James is challenging because it holds our feet to the fire. We cannot just read it in a detached manner thinking it only talks about things that happened a long time ago. James challenges us on whether we are living our faith here and now. There is a rhetorical question that you often run into in discussions about living the Christian faith: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? In the case of James the Just there clearly was, and he lived his Christian faith in such a way that even those who did not share that faith still admired him for it. It is worth pondering what the answer would be if the question were applied to each of us?
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees and scribes about people washing their hands is also related to the topic of how do we live our faith. As is often the case in life, their argument does not really concern the topic about which they are arguing. The Pharisees and scribes are criticizing the actions of the disciples as a way of criticizing Jesus. If the disciples are not doing things correctly it must be because Jesus is not teaching them correctly, and if Jesus is not teaching them correctly it must be because Jesus is a fraud. Understanding what the real argument is about is helpful for modern believers, like ourselves, because otherwise we are left in a position of denouncing the practices of the Pharisees (such as washing hands, foods and dishes), which from the perspective of modern hygiene standards are actually good things to do!
Jesus gets to the heart of the matter when he charges that the Pharisees and scribes “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” The actions the Pharisees and scribes were complaining about were not required under Jewish law; they were a tradition observed by some, but not all, Jews. Thus they were not technically binding on everyone. However the Jewish law (the commandments) was binding on all Jews, and Jesus argues that this is what the Pharisees and scribes are failing to observe. He accuses them of focusing on exterior rituals and not on interior conversion. He then turns this argument into a teachable moment, by telling the crowds that the things that defile us, that prevent us from truly loving God and our neighbors, are not the things we put in our stomachs, but the things that come from our heart.
This issue is central to the message that Jesus was seeking to proclaim. Jesus did not worry about ritually unclean hands or food—just as he did not avoid contact with ritually unclean people. Nor was this issue unique to just Jesus’ time. His actions and statements towards the Pharisees and scribes mirror the same sort of tensions that later developed within the Christian community between believers from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. Here Jesus makes it clear that differing customs and practices should not be the basis for persecution and exclusion. (Pheme Perkins, “Commentary and Reflections on the Gospel of Mark,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, p. 608.)
This gospel passage points to the dangerous trap true believers can fall into when faith in God is sacrificed in the name of human tradition. It is a trap that the Church as a whole, along with individual believers, has fallen into many times. The question we need to ask ourselves is what rituals, purity codes, expectations, and biases do we have that prevent us from recognizing God in one another? In what ways do we render people invisible when they fail to live up to our, rather than God’s, standards? (Amy C. Howe, “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, p. 22.)