Text: Mark 7:1-13
Date: Pentecost XIV Proper 16B + 8/26/18
In our walk through Mark’s Gospel this year, a few weeks ago we left Jesus and the crowds in a desolate place just after He had fed the 5,000 from only five barley loaves and two fish. Then we invited the Evangelist St. John who told us everything else Jesus said on that occasion. For Jesus preached to them explaining the full significance of the miracle they had just experienced.
He told them the Gospel, that is, how everything pointed to Him as the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. They remembered how God fed their forefathers with bread from heaven in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt and their deliverance at the Passover. As the Passover of old was celebrated with unleavened bread and the lambs were sacrificed to deliver them from the angel of death, and as they were commanded to repeat the remembrance of that deliverance every year so now Jesus claimed to be fulfillment, the true bread from heaven, the Lamb of God who would be sacrificed to deliver the whole world from the angel of death, sin and hell. All of that is proclaimed in the miracle of the bread.
Well, today, as we thank St. John for supplying these important words in the past three weeks he now leaves us and we pick up where we left off. And what do we see? They’re still eating bread! But now Mark introduces us into the next stage of hearing and understanding the Gospel as opposition and criticism begin from certain ones among the religious community.
He tells us of scribes and pharisees gathering. The scribes and pharisees were the religious leaders, or should we call them “enforcers” of the religious life of the people. “Six Hundred and Thirteen.” I don’t know why I should remember that number through the years. I suppose it’s because it demonstrates the extreme legalism and hypocrisy of these fellows. For that is how many other rules they had come up with supposedly as an aid to help people make sure they were keeping God’s Ten Commandments rightly.
One of those rules, everybody knew, was how you were to faithfully wash anything that may have come into contact with a Gentile foreigner or unbeliever in either a normal or accidental manner. It was a ritual cleansing of just plain water. How many of you take the time to fold your hands or close your eyes to say a prayer before a meal? It’s a good thing. Is it commanded by God? How many of you feel guilty if you forget or don’t take the time? They complained to Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Things can get like that, you know, emphasizing what is really secondary to the point that it contradicts what is really important. Here we are shown the contrast between the oral traditions and the written Word of God. The pharisees spoke only of the oral law. Jesus responds with the written and sure law of God from the Torah, That Word consists of both Law and Gospel.
Quoting from the prophet Isaiah Jesus calls them hypocrites. A hypocrite is someone who puts on a mask, a facade of piety. They do this primarily to cover their fear of confessing and admitting to the true faith, the Gospel. As such they emphasize only some law to criticize others. Jesus, on the other hand, and those who appeal to the written law of God, the Torah, end up emphasizing the Gospel, that is, God’s command of love.
To make this clear Jesus cites another example. Without getting into the weeds as they say the bottom line is that, while God clearly says in the Fourth Commandment to honor and love your parents as long as you live, they had a rule (mainly motivated by money) that let you “off the hook” so to speak to that you didn’t have to love or care for mom or dad if it got to be too inconvenient. Because of their legalism and hypocrisy Jesus said, “thus you make void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.”
Whenever a teaching, religious or otherwise, contradicts God’s written law, it is worse than just doing nothing. So was it okay for Jesus’ disciples to dive in and eat that bread “with hands defiled,” that is, without the expected ritual washing? Did Jesus say anything to them like, “Now, now boys, don’t forget to wash your hands”? Maybe He did and maybe didn’t. What difference would it have made?
So here the Pharisees the and scribes reveal their legalism, hypocrisy and criticism of Jesus which will grow in intensity all the way to condemning Him to death on a cross. But even there the written Word of the Torah, of God’s Law and Gospel triumphs as faith asks, “What kind of love is this, O my soul?” And gets the Gospel answer, “This is the Lord bearing the dreadful curse for my soul. This is the love of Christ laying aside His crown for my soul.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing His love for me,
And through eternity I’ll sing on. [LSB 543].