This week we hear Jesus challenging and seeking to break open the "too small ” mindset of the religious who focus on the appearance or outside aspects of behaviour and form rather than the heart of the matter.(RCL Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; and Mark 7:1-8,14-23.)
Some of us may be a little wary of a text that might be misconstrued as suggesting that those who have faith don’t need to worry about proper cleanliness, especially as this moment in the pandemic’s unfolding. However Jesus of course is not commenting on germ theory or even particularly on understandings of cleanliness. Rather Jesus is challenging and seeking to break open the “ too small” mindset of the religious who focus on the appearance or outside aspects of behaviour and form rather than the heart of the matter.
After many weeks exploring John’s gospel and the image of Jesus as the Bread of Life we return to Mark’s gospel. It is good to remember that the gospel of Mark begins with, and relentlessly pursues, the challenge of Jesus to “the time has come, and the realm of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” I am sure that we have been told that the word we translate as Repent is Metanoia which more fully means to be turned around or to have one’s mind changed. Even more than this it is fair to translate it as to go beyond the smallness of the mind. Meta being big or beyond (as in meta data) and noia being the mind. It is good to have this in our thoughts as we approach this text.
Mark’s gospel is not only short it is very succinct so this text too goes to the central message that we are being invited, indeed challenged, to have our minds changed, expanded, taken deeper, broader, beyond what we already know. Jesus is effectively saying not so much that the law is wrong but that it is too small and that we must go the heart of what the law is really concerned with – honouring God and self and neighbour.
Before we go any further it is worth pointing out that in ancient world, of which Israel was a part, that the heart was not seen as primarily about feelings and emotions, the treasury of the sentimental and the emotional, but that the heart was the seat of perception, was the way we look at the world. This is of course important when we consider the words of Jesus that it does not matter what goes into a person for it goes into the stomach and then is finished with but what comes out of a person for it comes from the heart. The things we say and do are a reflection, an outworking, of how we perceive the world.
This weeks text begins with a criticism of Jesus’ disciples by the religious, and therefore indirectly of him as well. Jesus does not directly enter into a debate about the rights or wrongs of the law and its various purity codes. Firstly he states that those seeking to criticise are hypocritical because they do not themselves encourage the keeping of the spirit of the law but rather help people sidestep responsabilities using one rule, about what belongs to God, to avoid a commandment that one honours ones parents including taking care of them in their old age.
Secondly Jesus treads carefully for he knows that what he is about to say is difficult. Jesus is critiquing the strict food and purity laws in a way that says that the chosen people have largely focused on the wrong or too smaller things. Jesus knows this is sensitive because some have been matyred for their refusal to eat pork for example. And in the community that is hearing the gospel according to Mark it is almost certainly a divisive issue that some new converts don’t want to have to adhere to Jewish laws while some believe that following Jesus requires that.
Jesus is most certainly saying that his disciples, including us listening to it now, must go deeper, go beyond, go to the heart of what the law is concerned about – how we live out our love of God, self and other. Joan Chichester has prepared a wonderfully deep and challenging series on the Ten Commandemnts which makes it clear that behind and beyond the rules is a deep rich view of life and the value of all. We need our hearts and minds to be broken open so that we can perceive the infinite preciousness of all that is.
So how do we understand this is in our own world? We too need to be careful not to fall into hypocritical thinking, that is being so focused on how others fall short while ignoring our own failures to live rightly and fully. The church for example has been terribly guilty of providing a running commentary on other people’s sexual activities without noticing or dealing with the sexual abuse within our own fold. Most churches regularly encourage, berate, challenge their own membership to manage their finances in such a way as they can be generous with the church but then the church has not been very responsible with where funds have been invested. We teach our children to sing “ All things bright and beautiful … the Lord God made them all” and then have treated the created world as expendable.
And as our perception is challenged and our hearts and minds opened we need to be full of care for others as their too small world is dismantled. We are all limited in our perceptions and as our hearts see a little more clearly we need to be humble and remember that like the disciples in Jesus’ own time we have often needed many private lessons to make the connections.
But maybe most importantly and most difficultly we need to give our hearts over, again and again, to being expanded and our minds renewed. We are a people called to repentance, to having our minds changed, so that we can perceive the reign of God within and among us.
As Mary Oliver says “I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.” And that maybe is the heart of the matter, we are called to repentance, to being converted from the small world of our rules to the great inclusive abundant kingdom of God not only for our sake but for the sake of all. Like our teacher and guide, our Saviour and Lord, our friend and companion, we are called to live life in such a way that the great love of God flows out through and from us to all.
I am indebted to the work of Cynthia Bourgeault “The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message”, Shambhala Press, Boulder, 2008.