Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 30 August 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
Many of us will think we know today’s gospel passage and take for granted Jesus’ lambasting of mindless tradition, focussed on externals, and his championing of a true inner religion, a good inward disposition in the sight of God. Even if we don’t know the passage well it seems the obvious and easy way to read what we have just heard. But things are not always as they seem: what we hear in the gospel is often the outcome of an argument of which we don’t know the beginning, an outcome reported by the winners.
The first warning sign to pick up is that word ‘Pharisees’. If this were a John Wayne movie, these would be the people in black. They are the bad guys of the story, much as that composite group called simply ‘the Jews’ features in St John. We don’t stop to question the composition of this supposedly homogenous group who are the official opposition in the story of Jesus. They perform a stock narrative function, standing against progress, seeking to hold on to long-established privilege themselves, keeping others out, resisting change, especially that proposed by our hero. But who are they really? What is this story actually about?
This is where the whole thing gets a lot more interesting. Every church I’ve ever known has a fair few members, almost all well-motivated and good people, who fulfil the pharisee role. And pharisees don’t just line up behind unexplained external ceremonies. I have learned that Phariseeism can equally make the absence of ceremonies the marker by which it seeks demonstrate superiority. In fact any detail of church life will do: the absence or presence of bells, choirs, organs, bands, music groups, vestments, committees, flowers, altars of stone, tables of wood, incense, books, anything projected on a screen, pew-bibles, pewsheets, pews, chairs, rotas, alcohol in church, children in church: these are the first twenty things I can remember having heard argued both ways as markers of good church versus bad church. We can make almost anything a point of pride by which to show that we are closer to God than our neighbour.
Back to the Pharisees or, rather, what they represent here. as far back as we can go in Christian tradition the evidence points to divisions among the followers of Jesus. Paul, writing before any of the gospel-writers, refers to groups sharply divided from each other. More importantly he says that this must be so, even if it is only to show which members have the maturity to deal with such difficulties:
18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it.
19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 1 Cor. 11.18f.
He expands on this at length in Romans 14 & 15 (his instruction about how to deal with food laws and other details left over from Jewish practice). The argument we’ve heard this morning in Mark chapter 7, about what is clean and unclean, illustrates first-century disagreements (among Christians and indeed sometimes in Judaism itself) on this very live issue.
The Pharisees get a consistently bad press, so this picture of them enforcing legalistic external observance in place of true religion of the heart is too easy to hear as typical of the baddies we think we know them to be. But Jesus is saying something subtler than that: he is distinguishing between the commands of God and human traditions. Here the Pharisees (but it could be anyone) are accused of using such traditions (which they happened to raise to a high status, so it could be anything we similarly over-emphasise), to avoid keeping the commands of God. This is the charge which some always bring against others in the Church, claiming Jesus’ high ground. But who are the Pharisees? We must always ask, while keeping an open mind, are these loud voices actually shouting for something small and judgemental, or are they articualting the Gospel? We are all capable of being pharisees about something, while being in every other respect the obviously rational and right-thinking mature Christians we all recognised in the mirror this morning.
Jesus points out that the Pharisees avoid one of the ten commandments by skilful use of a religious rule. Washing before meals was part of the oral law passed down by Rabbis, whereas honouring parents was a law of the ten commandments, which one should not find spurious reasons to evade (most actual Pharisees would in fact agree with him here). Jesus reminds them that they are wrong to use peripheral rules to invalidate the large and loving commands of God. That is an overarching precept of the gospel. It is those precepts we need to look for. That’s the side of any argument to look for. But it isn’t always blindingly obvious, and the surface meaning of the Bible (sometimes mistakenly described as the plain meaning of scripture) may not be enough to reveal it.
The disagreements between members of the churches (as we can see them in Romans 14 & 15), some claiming the authority of Paul and others the authority of the more traditional James (from whom we heard this morning), were clearly deep and probably bitter. Paul’s solution (motivated by the needs of his gentile missions) is acceptance of one another in any behaviour which is demonstrably not a first-order issue. Here are just a few verses from Romans 14:
5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.
6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
Anything to do with food and purity could raise irrational and insoluble problems in the ancient world. But before we complacently distance ourselves from perceived ancient irrationalities, let’s be clear that we’re still arguing like this; it is just the categories that have changed.
James says to us today in the second reading, ‘be doers of the word and not hearers only’; to which, standing here, I must immediately add, ‘not preachers only’. And James reminds us next Sunday that faith without works is dead. That perfectly articulates the teaching of Jesus, who always preferred passion for justice and enacted love to anaemic self-righteousness.
The really extraordinary thing about the Christian story, which is so much bigger than the so-called plain meaning of scripture, is that some Jews, such as Paul himself, were able to overcome lifelong taboos and believe that Jesus had given them this freedom. Mark shows that he believed this too. Our challenge is whether we believe him; or do we give in to our inner Pharisee?