Wherever Jesus went during his ministry in Galilee, people gathered. Wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they brought the sick and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed (see Mark 6:56). People wanted to get close to him because his presence was healing.
Others gathered, because Jesus’ presence was confusing, even disturbing. The Pharisees and some of the scribes from Jerusalem closely watched him, kept an eye on his followers and what they did, and what they saw didn’t mesh with their high expectations for proper piety:
- Tax collectors and sinners sat at table with him and his disciples.
- The disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of the Pharisees fasted regularly, but his didn’t.
- On the sabbath, they plucked heads of grain while walking through the fields, and their master even cured a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on that holy day.
To them every meal was a sacred ritual, every action an occasion for blessing the Lord. They opened their eyes in the morning praising God for the gift of light; they went about their daily work praising God for the gifts of their skills and strength; they opened a scroll of scripture blessing God for the gift of Torah; they broke bread giving thanks to God for the gifts of the earth and of human labor; they tucked in their sons and daughters at night praising God for the gift of children – a beautiful practice.
Yet Pharisees also stayed away from all things and all people that might have rendered them unclean. They did not eat with known sinners. They avoided interacting with strangers. And around the sick, they were careful not to touch or be touched.
Wherever Jesus went, people gathered.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them (Mark 7:1-2).
Their concern was not personal hygiene, but piety and ritual purity. Ritual washing would remove any accidental impurity they might have acquired unknowingly while interacting with all kinds of people. A simple act like pouring a little water over one’s hands before a meal, recommended by wise teachers of the past, helped maintain the boundary between holiness and the common world.
Some of Jesus’ disciples did not observe that tradition, others apparently did; so the clash wasn’t just between Jesus and the Pharisees, but perhaps also between groups of Jesus’ own followers. In Mark’s account, however, perhaps for the sake of clarity, the lines are clearly drawn. He even adds an editorial comment saying, “all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands,” which is incorrect historically, but makes for great drama.
“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” the Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem ask. Jesus calls them hypocrites who honor God outwardly, but whose hearts are far from God. He accuses them of teaching human precepts as doctrines while abandoning the commandment of God and holding on to human tradition.
If anyone asked you and me whether we will live by God’s word and commandment or by human tradition, we would obviously choose God’s word. But then it wouldn’t take us long to realize that God’s word is available to us only through human mediation, be it written or spoken or embodied. The word and command of God is not a voice from heaven or a book that fell from the sky, but a voice that speaks to us in the voice of Moses and the prophets, in the life of Jesus, in his death and resurrection, in the teachings of the apostles and the stories of the gospels. Before we can understand and obey, we must interpret the written and spoken words – and our interpretations will always differ.
The Pharisees heard the commandment of God, “You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). Who can blame them for wanting to maintain that separation in every dimension of daily life? Who can blame them for striving for holiness in all things? Who can blame them for sometimes losing sight of God’s mercy in their persistent attention on the line between the sacred and the profane and on not allowing it to get blurry?
In the conflict of interpretations, of course we identify our own traditions with the word of God and denigrate the viewpoints of our opponents as merely human tradition. Things will only get better when we learn to listen together to the many streams of our tradition. Things will only get better when we have men and women who teach us not only to understand and obey the word of God in our own tradition, but also to look at our own certainties from the perspective of those who question them.
The Pharisees gathered around Jesus when he ate with sinners; they saw that he crossed a line; what they didn’t see was that he crossed it to bring reconciliation.
The Pharisees gathered around Jesus when he cured a man on the sabbath; they saw that he crossed a line; what they didn’t see was that he crossed it to include the man in the peace and promise of sabbath by healing him.
The Pharisees gathered around Jesus when five-thousand had been fed with bread and fish and the baskets were overflowing – and all they could see was that some disciples hadn’t washed their hands.
Their passion was deep, their knowledge broad, but they could only see what their tradition allowed them to see. Like them, we will only see what our tradition allows us to see – unless we at least consider that sometimes the living word of God will say and do something unheard of.
“Listen to me,” says Jesus, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”
I want to scribble in the margins, “Not so fast. There is plenty outside a person that by going in can defile. We are not born with our prejudices. We are not immune to the subtle messages that tell us that we are unworthy of love.” Like I said, if I had an inch or two of white margins in my Bible, I would have started listing the many ways in which words, ideas, attitudes, and reactions can defile a person’s innate sacredness and even snuff the light of hope in their heart.
But Jesus is speaking in the context of a tense debate over boundaries and how to maintain holiness, and he flips the Pharisees’ view on its head.
Their focus on ritual purity leads to a desire for islands of holiness in the threatening sea of unholy chaos that is the world. In their view, the danger comes from outside, from others, from those whose only place in the sacred order of things is that of outsiders.
And Jesus says, “Evil things come from within. Evil intentions come from the human heart.” He draws my attention away from me as the possible victim of exposure to unholy and polluting influences. And he draws my attention back to me as the possible source of the very things that I’m afraid might touch me.
As long as I expect the threat to holy living only to come from outside, I’m more likely to develop patterns of avoidance, critical observation, and accusation of others. But as soon as I begin to look honestly at myself, I will learn patterns of self-knowledge, repentance, and humility. And the better I know my own heart, the deeper my compassion for others will be.
The God we serve is holy and calls us to be holy. The God we serve is in our midst not to erect new boundaries but to gather us into relationships and draw us into the holiness of Christ. And in his presence we realize that, yes, sin is strong, but forgiveness prevails. The world is not what it could and should be, but Christ is risen from the dead and a new world has begun. Our calling in that new world is to find windows in the walls, to reach across barriers of language and culture, and to push aside barricades of prejudice and fear.
Jesus was not afraid to touch the sick, the poor, the crazed, he wasn’t afraid to brush against those fallen from the public’s grace, he touched and healed and held and fed, and wherever he went, the people gathered. Because of him we know that God’s holiness is not the static quality of a distant deity, but a movement to the world, a loving fearlessness that leaps over walls to get to every single one of us, until all are one.
You know better than I where you can participate in that movement. You know better than I who might be waiting for a phone call from you. You know better than I where you can reach across the fences that still divide our community into insiders and outsiders.
- In the law of Moses, God commands God’s people, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45).
- In the gospel of Luke, Jesus commands, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
- In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus commands, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”(Matthew 5:48).