Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
St. Mark 7:1-13
Clean & Unclean, Part One
Proper 16B, 26 August 2012
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, WY
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Grape juice on a white carpet. Grass stains on a football uniform. Tomato sauce on your favorite white shirt. Oil on a driveway. We are all familiar with impossible-to-remove stains, the dirty things in our lives, the unclean. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” the saying goes. We use soap & water, baking soda, 409, and even the heavy artillery, ammonia or bleach. Americans can readily identify with the concern of the Pharisees in our text today: “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands?” Or rather, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
This wasn’t the first leading question Jesus was asked by the Pharisees. Before this occasion, Mark’s gospel account tells of several previous problems with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. This wasn’t the first confrontation, and it wouldn’t be the last.
The people noticed a difference between Jesus’ teaching and what they were used to hearing, even in the first chapter of this gospel account. They noted (1:22) that He taught as one who had authority and not as the teachers of the law. In the next chapter, (2:18) the Pharisees questioned Jesus about fasting. By the third chapter, (3:6) after Jesus heals the man with a shriveled hand, the Pharisees began a dirty plot to kill Jesus. It is amazing that they plan to kill Jesus so soon. The Chief priests and teachers of the law don’t get around to such plotting until chapter 11!
The sermon this week, as well as the sermon next week, is on Mark Chapter 7.
Now, (chapter 7) with their plot in mind, looking for a way to trip Him up, they query Jesus about ceremonial washings and uncleanness.
7 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him [Jesus], with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)
John of Damascus informs us about the Pharisees: “Pharisee is a name meaning ‘those who are set apart.’ They followed a way of life which they regarded as more perfect. They esteemed their way as superior to others. They affirmed the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels, and holiness of life. They followed a rigorous way of life, practicing asceticism and sexual abstinence for periods of time and fasting twice a week. They ceremonially cleansed their pots and plates and cups, as did the scribes. They observed the paying of tithes, the offering of first fruits, and the recitation of many prayers” (ACCS 92).
The tradition of the elders does not refer to Old Testament purity laws handed down to Moses by the Lord, but an extrabiblical custom adopted by the Pharisees. Such handwashing was done, according to Mark (7:3) either with a “handful” of water or by pouring water over “cupped” hands—the Greek term is ambiguous. Mothers everywhere today rejoice in the washing of hands. The Pharisees have a different concern than our modern concern about germs—theirs a spiritual one.
5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Unclean? Jesus and his disciples unclean? According to whose standard? Incredible importance is being placed on human tradition in this accusation. By the time of Jesus, God’s Old Testament people had devised their own rules and regulations to help them keep God’s laws. Sometimes they missed the point of their religious devotion. So much for what Deuteronomy 4 teaches us: Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.
6 And he [Jesus] said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “ ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
Jesus concludes: 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
Peter summarizes this teaching well in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than men.”
What is really important here? Going through the motions of piety, or being a pious, repentant sinner? To put it in contemporary terms, they were coming to church, tithing, were incredibly involved in their congregation, and looking presentable, but doing it all for the wrong reasons. Does their man-made tradition of washing make them really clean? Does it please a holy God? Does it remove their sin?
Consider their misplaced priorities. God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and a repentant tax collector to a proud Pharisee.
9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban” ’ (that is, given to God)4— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
Jerome explains the spiritual danger the Pharisees were teaching to their followers: “The Lord himself discussed that commandment of the Law which says: ‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’ He made it clear that it is to be interpreted not as mere words, which, while offering an empty show of honor to parents, might still leave them poor and their necessities unrelieved. Instead, the honor of parents should focus on the actual provision of the necessities of life. The Lord commanded that poor parents should be supported by their children who would reimburse them back when they are old for all those benefits which they themselves received in childhood. The scribes and Pharisees instead were teaching children to honor their parents by saying: ‘It is corban, that is to say, a gift which I have promised to the altar and will present at the temple, where it will relieve you as much as if I were to give it to you directly to buy food.’ So it frequently happened that while father and mother were destitute, their children were offering sacrifices for the priests and scribes to consume” (ACCS 93).
Peter returns our focus to the priority of the Lord’s Word in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than men.”
We would do well to avoid the self-righteous pride of the Pharisees and continually confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. Forgive us, good Lord!
We would also profit from getting our priorities straight when it comes to God’s Word: to hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. And be careful not to add our own traditions, our own regulations or rules and elevate them to the level of divine authority at the expense of genuine divine law.
Before we conclude our consideration of this first section of Mark Chapter 7, we need to spend some more time on verse four. Please listen carefully as I re-read the text: And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.
Did you hear it? Did you hear the word “baptizing” in the text? No? That’s because we’re dealing with an English translation of Mark 7:4. Why is this even important? Some Christians insist that baptisms MUST be done by immersion. The way the word for wash/baptize is used here means that we must merely apply water. That is the basic meaning of the word anyway.
L101: “The word baptism simply means to apply water. One could pour, sprinkle, or immerse. Some Christian groups insist that a person must be immersed in order to be truly baptized. Does Scripture insist on “dunking”? No. Christians have the freedom to apply water in Holy Baptism in a variety of ways. And as you’ve [heard] (read) before, we can’t add to God’s Word by insisting on something that the Lord Himself does not insist upon. That being said, most Lutheran churches will administer Baptism by pouring water over the head of the one being baptized. This became the normal practice among Lutherans during the Reformation when some insisted that Baptism was valid only by full immersion” (Cain, 138).
Do you see the connections between this text and the main point of today’s text? We must obey God rather than men. We can’t elevate human teachings, opinions, or preferences to the level of God’s Word OR demote the authority of God’s Word to that of mere human preference, wisdom or appearance.
In addition, we have the blessing of Mark 7:4. The word usually translated at “washing” in this verse is the same word we would normally translate as “baptizing.”
Please listen again as I re-read a corrected translation of the text: And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the baptizing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.
Why is this obscure verse helpful as we discuss with other Christians how baptism must be done? Simple. In order for something to be insisted upon as a “must” in the Church, there can’t be any Bible verse that contradicts it being a “must.” Mark 7:4 is just that verse for us with regard to the insistence of some that baptisms must be immersions. The word “baptism” means “apply water.” Not even all of the Pharisees’ pots and couches were fully immersed—just washed.
On Thanksgiving, we commonly see the turkey go in the oven in a big black-and-white-speckled enamel roaster. Once it is time to wash up the roaster, will something that big fit into mom’s sink? Probably not. It might sit on the counter next to the sink soaking, letting the water and detergent do its work. Is it possible to wash that big enamel roasting pan without immersing or dunking it entirely in water? Sure. Just like the way the Pharisees themselves “washed” their larger pots and copper vessels.
When your sofa or dining room chairs are dirty, do you take them out to the river to dunk them to get them clean? Of course not! Spot cleaning by dabbing, pouring, sprinkling, or spraying are far more appropriate. The Greek word translated as “wash” or “baptize” includes the application of water for cleansing.
Before we leave this subtopic, allow me to share one last connection to our text and specifically who may be baptized. Children are sinners—even infants—because of original sin and their actual selfishness. Children need what baptism gives: the forgiveness of sins. Children are part of “all nations,” those whom Jesus commissioned us to teach and baptize. And children are included in those given to be baptized in Acts 2:39 and the households of Acts 16. Why then, do some Christian groups deny baptism to the youngest among us and teach baby dedication instead, a human tradition rather than what God has Himself instituted for our good?
Luther explains the Third Commandment in this way: We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
We must never elevate human teachings, opinions, or preferences to the level of God’s Word OR demote the authority of God’s Word to that of mere human preference, wisdom or appearance. We must obey God rather than men. Amen.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.