A Lectionary Reflection on Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 & Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 For Proper 17B / Ordinary 22B
A woman who was reasonably happily married, worked very hard to please her husband. He was not an easy man to please, but she loved him, and she was happy to do the work. In order to make sure that she didn’t forget any of the things he had asked her to do, she wrote herself a list. Each day, she would check her list and make sure that she had done all she could to keep him happy.
After many years of marriage, the husband died, and some time later, the woman found love with another husband. For a number of years she was deeply grateful for the gift of love for a second time, and she would have considered both marriages as equally happy and good. She did feel more relaxed as she grew older, but she wasn’t sure why. Then, one day, as she was looking for something, she found one of the lists she had written up for her first husband. As she read all the things she had worked hard to remember in order to keep him happy, she realised that her new husband had never caused her to feel she needed a list. Then, she recognised that she was doing for her second husband everything that she had written on the list for her first – only with now, she didn’t have to think about it or work to remember it. These acts of love now flowed from her heart.
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is confronted by religious leaders and experts in religious law. His disciples don’t wash their hands before eating. While it was not written in the law that they should, it was a well-accepted ritual of purity that was required of faithful Jews. Not long after Jesus, these spoken traditions were written down and formalised. So, for them, it was no small thing that Jesus and his followers should seem to be ignoring a tradition that was held in high regard. Yet, Jesus, in his response, makes this question of tradition a question of the heart. Quoting Isaiah (29:13), Jesus indicates that the legalistic observance of tradition that these religious leaders enforce reveal them to be people who seem to honour God with their lips, while their hearts are really from God. As is always the case, Jesus makes it about the heart – the law, he teaches again and again, is about the heart.
Later, as the disciples try to make sense of what Jesus has said, he explains that what is taken into the body – the food we eat – cannot defile us. (Mark elaborates on the implications of this in a commentary he adds – that in saying this Jesus made all foods clean). It is what comes from within that defiles us or makes us clean. Following tradition is not wrong in and of itself, unless we substitute the work of the heart with legalistic, outward observance. The Reign of God, then, is not about making sure we get all the laws rightfully observed. The Reign of God is about an intimate – passionate, if we are to draw any meaning from the passage from Song of Songs 2:8-13, which is also set in the Lectionary this week – relationship with God that captures and changes our hearts.
In a similar way, Moses, at the borders of the Promised Land, tried to prepare the Israelites for their life ahead. Deuteronomy, which means “The Second Law”, was Moses attempt to ensure that the new generations of Israelites would remember and follow the law which God had given to their parents just after their escape from Egypt. Now that the older generation had all died, Moses, as the last of them (apart from Joshua and Caleb who, for their faithful witness as spies, were permitted to enter the land) seeks to pass the baton on to the new generation. And so he repeats the law that they have been given and exhorts them to obey it, faithfully and completely. The law, he explains, will give them wisdom and intelligence that will earn the respect of other nations, and will ensure that they do get to enjoy the prosperity of the new land that God has promised them.
But, notice how Moses begins his instruction. He calls the people to preserve the memory of what they have seen God do, and to pass these stories on to their children. Moses knew, as the Pharisees of Jesus’ time seem to have forgotten, that the law only makes sense when the heart is captured. And it’s not laws that capture hearts, but stories. This is why Moses begins Deuteronomy by retelling the story of the Exodus and of receiving the law at Mount Sinai. That’s why he begs the people to hold on to these stories and to pass them on to their children. The stories give the laws context and meaning. The stories capture the heart so that the laws become the natural expression of a life lived in alignment with God’s purposes. The stories show the people what God has done, and will do, for them, and they give the people an identity and a sense of community, of belonging in God’s chosen nation. It is not the laws that bring them into a passionate relationship with God, but the stories – and then, once their union with God is passionate and heartfelt, the laws become almost unnecessary.
It’s interesting that Jesus uses the metaphor of food around this discourse on the heart. There has been a lot of “food stuff” happening around the time of this debate with the religious leaders. In Mark 6, Jesus has fed the crowds, and immediately after this narrative, Mark tells the story of the Gentile woman who asks Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus’ response is that it’s not right to give the dogs the food that is meant for the children. (Her answer, that the dogs can still eat the crumbs that fall from the table gets her the healing she seeks. It’s a tough interaction, but that’s the subject for next week’s Lectionary). Food is a necessity which keeps us alive and nourishes our bodies. But, as Jesus has said, it is not what we take in that makes us clean or unclean. In this sense, food comes to represent the laws, tradition and even Scriptures that are given to sustain, guide and nourish us. They are not wrong or evil. They are not to be discarded (heaven forbid that we should use Jesus’ words to go there!). But neither are they able to transform us. Our Scriptures and traditions are not capable, in and of themselves, of making us better people (or worse). What they can do is reflect what is already in our hearts.
When our hearts are unclean, our religion becomes unclean – rigid, legalistic, violent, oppressive, condemnatory, exclusive and hateful. But, when our hearts have been captured by the grace and love of God, when our lives have become a passionate love-affair with our Creator, our religion becomes the expression of this love. It becomes spacious, welcoming, accepting, inclusive, compassionate, relaxed, creative and peaceful. Jesus is not calling us to purity or to legalism because these things cannot change us. What does change us is intimacy. We become like those we love – and this is most completely true of our love for God. So, Jesus calls us to this one simple, but difficult and all-consuming thing: intimacy with God – hearts that are close and devoted to God.
The Reign of God, then, is not about making sure we keep our religion pure. It’s not about making sure that the “others” (whoever these “others” may be – other religions, other sexual orientations, other races, other genders, other theological perspectives) do not get in where they can defile us. It’s about recognising that it is only our own hearts that can defile us. It is about making sure that God’s Reign captures our hearts, that we become passionate followers of Jesus, and that the character of Christ becomes so much a part of us that we cannot help but live as Jesus did. In all our fear of the church’s decline, in all our paranoia about other religions, secularism, materialism and so many other -isms, we often miss the point. If the world could see our passion, if the love and grace of God so consumed us that it naturally flowed out of us in every circumstance, with every person we encounter, we would have no need to defend our faith. It’s fragrance and its invitation would fill the world.