Text: Mark 7:1-13
Date: Pentecost XIII + Proper 16 + 9/23/15
Today St. Mark begins to describe the increasing hostility to Jesus by the official Jewish leadership which, of course, will culminate in our Lord’s crucifixion and death. In this confrontation by the high ranking Pharisees and selected scribes from Jerusalem Jesus refers to our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 29. In this word of the Lord we heard God’s accusation, saying, “You turn things upside down!” This, of course, is the habit of the rest of the world of spiritually blind sinners separated from the truth of God. This is why when Jesus delivers His Sermon on the Mount and specifically the Beatitudes that His words sound upside down to us! We refer to this classically as the confusion of Law and Gospel. The Law suggests a person is saved “only if,” only if you do the right works and lead the right kind of moral life. The Gospel on the other hand says clearly that salvation is, nevertheless, the free gift of God to all who will receive it.
The criticism of the Pharisees was over Jesus’ disciples breaking one of the traditional rules that a person must ceremonially wash their hands before eating. Some of the disciples didn’t do that on this occasion.
There are two extremes to false doctrine or false teaching. The one is “legalism,” setting up and enforcing the rules just because they are the rules. The opposite is call “antinomianism,” (anti=against the nomo, the law) meaning lawlessness. The Pharisees were accusing Jesus’ disciples of lawlessness. But what laws were they breaking? This was among the 613 rules that were set up as a sort of fence around the Ten Commandments as a way of enforcing them (they’d say “helping people obey them”). Jesus called their accusation “hypocrisy” because they were just as guilty of breaking or bending these rules as the disciples. Here we may remember Jesus’ clear words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). His fulfilling the Law does not abolish the Law but changes it not only by delivering us from the Law’s accusation but also by giving us new hearts and will to love God’s Law and let it guide us in holy living, not out of compulsion but willingly as God would have you.
There has been and still is the sin of legalism in the Church today. The classic definition is the Roman Catholic Church’s charge against Lutherans and the Protestants for rejecting their rules and laws with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone in God’s grace. There have also been legalistic tendencies every once in a while or here or there even among the Lutherans. Even today certain District Presidents warn the pastors of their charge saying, “I’m hearing too much Law being preached out there,” meaning an occasional or even habitual lapsing of turning the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus into some so-called “practical” application, as if the Gospel of Christ is not practical!
Yet today we are also witnessing the other extreme of antinomianism or lawlessness. This too has happened and is happening among some who otherwise call themselves Lutheran. Look for instance how quickly various church bodies are surrendering to the movement in the United States and elsewhere of people and even the government demanding that a church which does not allow the so-called marriage of homosexuals, and especially if that church dares to call homosexuality “sin,” is guilty of hate language and unacceptable legalism! As the government is just beginning to struggle (and that feebly) with this issue, so the Church is being challenged how to balance God’s Law that clearly calls sin “sin” with words of warning and condemnation on the one hand, and yet the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins and love of all people even in their struggles, deceptions, ignorance and slavery on the other. Many cannot see how the two go together and do not contradict each other.
Jesus is clearly contrasting the Old Covenant of the Law with its fulfillment in the New Covenant of the Gospel. Interestingly, some scholars entertain the thought here that Saul who would become the apostle Paul was among those aligned with these Pharisees from Jerusalem as a student of Gamaliel. Once a persecutor of the Church he became one of her strongest defenders. It is especially in his epistles to the Corinthians and Galatians that he makes the clear distinction between legalism and lawlessness.
On the one hand he clearly proclaims the Law, saying, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10). This has not changed. But this all changes in the New Covenant of baptism and the Holy Spirit as he then says, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).
To the Galatians Paul defines the freedom of the Gospel with the Law of love. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…. For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:1, 13-14). Finally the apostle tells how the Christian who operates no longer under slavery to the Law but is led by the Spirit thinks and acts. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” and then, as if that’s not clear enough he adds the almost humorous comment, “against such things there is no law” (Gal 5:22-23).
The Pharisees and scribes were accusing Jesus’ disciples of lawlessness and thereby also Jesus Himself! But they were only ignoring a man-made rule or tradition like “no elbows on the table”! Rather Jesus tells the Pharisees that they were guilty of being legalists to the exclusion of the way of love. Love is finally, you see, the true fulfilling of the Law.
The way of love, of course, is not easy or even pleasant at times. The standard of love is the cross, the crucified Jesus. But as horrendous was that scene, you see, that crucifixion, that death was done totally out of service to all people, the taking away of the condemnation of their sin, the release from the power of sin to enslave. Service to the neighbor. This is what it means to hate the sin but love the sinner.
To our generation, to our nation, to our world, God still says, “Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’ You turn things upside down!” (Is 29:15-16a). To follow in the way of Jesus, however, is to walk right side up in God’s sight, filled with the faith and the love that is in Christ Jesus the Lord.