Mark 7.1-23, Deuteronomy 4.1-9, James 1.14-27
A friend of mine recently became a priest in the Church of England. The first Sunday he went to celebrate communion in his church he realised there were all sorts of traditions involved which he didn't understand.
One he mentioned was this: his vicar told him that as he began preparing the bread and wine the server would offer him a bowl of water with which to wash his hands. He wasn't to accept this - instead, what he should do was hold his hands up and shake his head, as if to say, 'no, thanks'.
What a strange tradition - turns out it's there because decades ago the vicar used to wash his hands at that point in the service, but his successor didn't want to do that. But instead of arranging for the server to stop offering the water, he always went through that odd, meaningless ritual. And it's carried on ever since.
We have to be very careful about our traditions and rituals. About what we regard as 'orthodox' Christianity. About keeping on doing things simply because we've always done them that way.
Because that way may no longer speak to people's hearts, that way may no longer be God's way, if it ever was in the first place.
You have every right to question your church leaders on the traditions we maintain. To do so is to be Christlike. Because Jesus never stopped asking questions of those who maintained the traditions of his day. Jesus was deeply concerned that God's people didn't miss the point - didn't get so wrapped up in the letter of the law, that they let their hearts shrink, shrivel and die.
So in today's gospel we find him in deep conflict with the traditionalists of his day. Over the issue of ritual cleanliness. In brief, if you didn't wash properly, wash yourself, and wash the utensils you used around food, then you were unclean, defiled.
You won't find this law in the scriptures. It was one of many which the religious experts had created through their own interpretation of the scriptures, and imposed on the people of the day.
It was a simple enough law to keep if you lived and worked close to a good water supply, in the temple courts, government offices, royal palaces. But what if you worked out on the fields all day, if you were a builder up on the rooftops, a plumber down the drains? Not easy to wash up before meals in any of those places.
The law condemned such folk as unclean, defiled. Jesus wouldn't wear that. Jesus condemned the law.
Jesus said, it's not what goes into a person that makes them unclean - he's talking about food here - it's what comes out.
Or as The Message puts it, a little more crudely, it's not what you swallow that pollutes your life; it's what you vomit.
He's saying, it's not important what food you eat, what's important is what comes out of your heart. If your heart's full of badness then that's where pollution begins. It's a bad heart that makes you unclean. It's a bad heart that defiles you.
I think we live in Christlike days, in this sense. Because the spirit of our age is to question those institutions which uphold tradition. Our society has a critical spirit, which keenly seeks out hypocrisy: in the government, in the church, in royalty, in the police service...
Some of this is mischief-making. But much of it is something to do with checking what's at the heart of these institutions. How can a government be trustworthy if at its heart is deception and protectionism? How can a church be loving and all-embracing if at its heart is homophobia? How can royalty command respect if it has greed and corruption at its heart? How can a police service be seen as upholding justice for all if, at its heart, it is racist?
These are Christlike questions. And to deal with them in a Christlike way these institutions must embrace them, take a long hard look at themselves and ask, whether their fine traditions are what Jesus called the traditions of men, in opposition to the commands of God.
- Observe [God's laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will ... say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." [Deuteronomy 4.6]
Those who look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continue to do this, not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it - they will be blessed in what they do. [James 1.25]
It is our task as Christ's followers, to keep asking ourselves, what rules are we making? Do they reflect the loving commands of God, or are they closer to the crushing traditions of men?
Remembering that the holy people of Jesus' day regarded those who didn't wash their hands properly as unclean, defiled, we might ask ourselves, do we think like that about anyone?
Our society certainly does. For instance, how many smokers feel ostracised because to have a quick fag they're forced to stand outside buildings? Society condemns them. Yet, it's not what goes into a person which should condemn them, but what comes out. We all know smokers who are good people, there's a few here today.
Society condemns all sorts of people without looking intently into their situation, without seeking to ask how, with regard to them we might begin to live out God's law of love and grace.
Society condemns the homeless without seeking to understand what made them homeless and certainly without caring to do anything about helping them rebuild their lives.
Society damns gays and lesbians without taking much time to question common heterosexual practices such as those Jesus listed in today's gospel: lust, adultery, vice, which apply to people of all sexual persuasions.
Just like Jesus' opponents all those years ago society still sidelines those who eat food differently to ourselves: because of what they eat we say foreigners smell, they're dirty, neglecting that in recent years our most popular meal has become Chicken Tikka Masala, forgetting to celebrate that our high streets now offer a wide range of lovely cuisine from all over the world.
I could go on. I think the point's been made. In the light of all this, how should we live?
I suggest we live as Jesus' disciples did - as people prepared to ask questions of him, always seeking to work out what he meant when he took on the establishment and the popular culture of his day.
We should take great delight in searching the scriptures to discover what God's perfect law of love and freedom means in every situation we face.
We should talk to each other about these things, learn to trust each other even when we differ, to be accountable to each other for our attitudes, to pray together that we will be wise and understanding folk.
We should learn to see people not for what goes into them, but for what comes out from their hearts.