14 Pentecost, Proper 17 – August 29, 2021
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Sometimes our insight into Scripture can be enhanced by hearing a story from another source. In considering today’s Gospel, let’s look at the message through a Zen Buddhist story told about Nan-in, a teacher who was active a hundred years ago in Japan.

It seems that one day, Nan-in received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.  Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overflowing! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” [Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, compilers, “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writing” (Tuttle Publishing, 1998), p. 19.]

In today’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a group of people who, like Nan-in’s visitor, are full cups that need to be emptied if they are ever to receive his message.

They asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with unwashed hands?”  In other words….Teacher, your disciples aren’t following the rules! Rabbi, haven’t you taught your disciples anything? Jesus, how can you pretend to teach the people when your own disciples are out of control?

That’s the word–control. The scribes and the Pharisees had started out trying to please God, but had ended up trying to control the world. They had woven such a lovely tapestry of rules and regulations that they felt obligated to drape the whole world in its fabric.
Rules were part of the Jewish religious tradition, but by the time Jesus was preaching in Galilee, years and years of traditions had been piled up on top of the rules of the Torah so that the structures by which the Galilean Jew lived his life were firm, strong and non-negotiable.

There were good reasons for this, of course. Practical reasons around the safe preparation and consumption of food. In a day and time when little understanding of disease and sanitary standards existed . . . certain laws kept the people healthy.

Beyond the practical, though, there were psychological reasons for the rules. Living under oppression and occupation as the Jewish people were, the rules they followed helped define them as different from the people around them. The rules helped them clearly and easily discern who was “in” and who was “out” in a society where they were not in charge. The rules set boundaries and control in a larger world in which they had no boundaries and very little control over their lives at all.

The rules gave order and structure and comfort, because without the boundaries of the rules, things could get out of control. So, then, if everyone knew the rules and followed them then everything would be fine.

The problem is, this is religion as fence-building.  Religion as separation.  Religion as institution for institution’s sake.  And Jesus — never one to mince words — calls it what it is.  Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he rebukes the Pharisees, saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

The politics of fear kept us in line. All was well until this strange rabbi Jesus showed up on the scene and started breaking the rules.

Some were big ones, like pulling up a cushion to share a meal with tax collectors, touching women who were unclean, or healing the sick on the Sabbath–a day when you were supposed to be resting. Some were small, like the one recounted in our gospel passage today–Jesus’ disciples were not following the rules about washing their hands. And, it wasn’t so much that Jesus and his gang weren’t washing their hands correctly. It was that, with the breaking of the rules they threw the carefully constructed boundaries of Jewish life in Galilee into chaos. Without the boundaries . . . without the rules . . . well, then, how would the people know who they were? With the loss of that little piece of control, the leaders got scared. And for the people? Well, the uncertainty of life without the structure made them horribly afraid.

This big wide world they lived in—we live in—is hard for us to manage. And so we build for ourselves mirages of control. When these structures are breached we lose power and we are afraid. Just as they were then.

It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t condemn ritual hand washing in this story.  He doesn’t argue that all religious traditions are evil.  What he points out is the legalism, self-righteousness, and excluseness that keeps the Pharisees from freely loving God and loving their neighbors.  What he calls out is their elevation of rite over mercy, heritage over hospitality, ritual over compassion.  What he grieves is the Pharisees’ compulsive need to police the boundaries of their religion, based on their own narrow definitions.

Luis Alberto Urrea is an English Professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a wonderful writer. On a recent OnBeing podcast, he says that a deep truth of our time is that “we miss each other”.  He works with the ideas of borders and walls as liminal space, a liminal zone. He says “That place of crossing, that place of pressure, of two things meeting, that’s rich — I mean, that’s where the plankton wells up and the currents meet. And you can choose to see it in different ways. And either the border is a hideous, festering scar of oppression, horror, and violence, or it’s a fraternal space where two cultures meet and can exchange”. A border is “an imposed metaphor”  Maybe it’s just an idea nobody can agree on. A conversation that never ends, even when it becomes an argument and all participants kick over the table and spill their drinks and stomp out of the room.”

One of the questions asked of Luis was “How do we create empathy and love to replace fear and hatred?”  He responded with these words:  “I just think bearing witness, putting away that pointy finger and that ridiculous rhetoric —— it’s really hard. Again, the danger is talking about a human being. That’s dangerous. What do you mean, there are really wonderful people in that religion? What do you mean, there are really wonderful people that I’m going to love, doing that sexuality? What about that voting?

Guess what? Everybody has dreams. Everybody has people they love. Everybody has pain.”

What Luis is saying is that if we recognize our shared humanity and have a conversation with someone on the other side of that “border” we created, we may just laugh with them and cry with them and then they become our brother, our sister.

So what can we do?  How can we discern whether our way of doing religion is life-giving or not?  Jesus gives us this advice: notice what comes out of you.  Notice what fruit your overflowing cup bears. Does your version of holiness lead to hospitality?  To inclusion?  To freedom?  Does it cause your heart to open wide with compassion?  Does it lead other people to feel loved and welcomed at God’s table?  Does it make you brave, creative, and joyful?  Does it prepare your mind and body for a God who is always doing something fresh and new?  Does it facilitate another step forward in your spiritual evolution?

Or does it make you small, stingy, and bored?  Fearful, suspicious, withholding, and judgmental?

Jesus recognized that love, not rules or power, is what binds us together and that we’re stronger and safer together than we are ripped apart by distinctions and differences.

Like everything else Jesus offers us, his confrontation with the Pharisees is an invitation.  It’s an invitation to consider what is really sacred in our spiritual lives.  It’s an invitation to go deeper — past lip service, past tradition, past purity, past piety.  A religion of love for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the outcast, the enemy.  A religion of trust in a surprising, innovating, and ever-creating God.  The God of heritage and history, yes.  But also the God of an ever-living, ever-changing now. Along with Nan-in’s university professor, we must be set free from our own opinions and speculations, and become, like children, susceptible to wonder at the miracles around and within us.

May we be filled with the gift of that bountiful life which surpasses all that we can ask or imagine. The gift of a life lived more fully for Jesus and with Jesus – the greater good.  Amen.