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Mark 7: 1-23; James 1: 17-27
September 2, 2012
This month, we’re embarking on a sermon series—a conversation between the gospel of Mark and the book of James. Sometimes in the lectionary, texts coincide for a reason, but mostly that’s during lent and advent. During the rest of the calendar year, the texts are not necessarily designed for a conversation. The lectionary texts are designed so we get a broad look at the Bible over the course of the lectionary’s three year cycle.
But—in the month of September—it does seem like Jesus’ words and stories speak to the words from James. Jesus and James both have something to say about religion and faith.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus was on a bit of a rant against the religious leaders. It was observed by the religious leaders that Jesus’ disciples did not ritually wash their hands before eating. It was a tradition in some—but not all—Jewish communities, to ritually wash ones hands, to ritually cleanse food and to ritually clean all pots and pans before and after eating. And these disciples did not adhere to these particular religious traditions. And the fact that they did not do this ritual cleansing, caused some eyebrows to raise among these religious leaders.
So Jesus—using Isaiah as his starting point—tore into the religious leaders. “The people honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless; the doctrines they teach are only human precepts.”
Jesus ended this portion of the text by getting to the heart of what he’s saying—“It is what comes out of us that makes us unclean. For it is from within—from our hearts—that evil intentions emerge.”
So, religion doesn’t make us better people. Our rituals and traditions don’t make us better. The external things we do don’t make us more holy. Our external influences don’t matter much either. The focus on our traditions—the external ways our faith plays out—is a distraction from the real stuff; it’s a distraction from what is in our hearts.
James, on the other hand, is concerned about the behavior of the faithful. “Pure, unspoiled religion, in the eyes of God is this; coming to the aid of widows and orphans when they are in need, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.”
Didn’t I tell you these two texts are in conversation? Although it feels more like an argument between Jesus and James about what matters—the state of the heart and our actions.
Truthfully, the books of James is a bit of a controversy. Scholars can’t figure out who wrote it—though tradition holds that Jesus’ brother, James, is the author. Scholars can’t figure out when it was written either. But, what we do know is that James is a letter of advice to his “brothers and sisters”.
This book was very upsetting to reformers in the 16th century. In fact, Martin Luther argued that the book of James should be removed from the canon. He argued that because it did not mention the death and resurrection of Jesus—or anything about Jesus for that matter—that it wasn't gospel, or truth. He also was troubled because the theology was contrary to other texts—mostly the rest of the Greek testament. And the idea that “works” or our actions determine our heart—well, this was guiling to Luther. This is what Luther argued was a central problem with the Church—that people were so bent on actions determining faith, that their hearts were empty of faith.
So then, what is faith about—is it about our hearts or our actions?
This is one of the tricky parts of preaching—we have some texts to work with, texts that often feel plucked at random—and from these stories and words of faith, the preacher must determine a truth, a thing that has meaning for us today, that reaches to our context, and gives us a new view of Jesus and faith.
The problem with this is that when we preach the part of the story or text we’re given, it is not the end of the story. It’s never the end of the story. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time. And it’s rather unfair of us to determine what Jesus is saying unless we actually pull back, and see what Jesus does next, after he gives this exhortation to the religious leaders. How do his words of exhortation manifest themselves in what happens next?
After Jesus, in utter frustration, explained to his disciples, to the crowds and to the religious leaders, that one’s heart is the issue, Jesus took off. He went to the territory of Tyre and Sidon, a largely Gentile and Samaritan region. He intended to hide there. To take a break, a little sabbatical.
But unfortunately for Jesus, he was recognized by a Gentile woman, who approached Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter of demon possession. But Jesus, trying to hide, and probably a little unsure of this Gentile woman, said some hurtful words—“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food, and throw it to the dogs.”
Yes, Jesus just said this. He compared this woman to a dog. Now, I’ve heard a lot of theological justifications for what Jesus said in this text and why. It could be said that Jesus was talking about his people—the Jews—as children (children of God), and that may be true. But no one has ever been able to convince me that Jesus meant anything but slander by calling this Gentile woman a dog.
This Gentile woman called Jesus to task—in a gentle way. She replied to Jesus, “Even the dogs under the table get to eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus rewards this woman for her bold words. He said, “For saying this you will go home happy; the demon has left your daughter.”
After Jesus spoke to the religious leaders, the crowd and the disciples about faith and belief being rooted in the heart and not the actions, Jesus’ words were put to the test.
This woman—not from his Jewish flock—exposed what was in Jesus’ heart. Here in this personal moment between Jesus and a Gentile woman, he admits that the gospel was not intended for her, that she was not worthy of the bread of life. Jesus’ heart was exposed—in it, he found the prejudices of his own culture, of a world in which he had been steeped.
Perhaps you think that I’m skating on thin ice here, that I’m getting too comfortable with the idea that Jesus was human. I get it—it’s a frightening place to be, when we think that Jesus should be a certain way, and he doesn’t act in accordance with our beliefs. But, walk with me down this path for a second.
Jesus said something very human here—but his response to the reprimand is what reminds us of just how amazing Jesus is. His response was to, in effect, shine a light onto his own flawed views, and to be changed by the exposure. Jesus wasn’t going to help this woman. But, when she exposed his own limiting view of the gospel, his very heart, he was changed. And, he offered her daughter the healing she desired. And in doing so, he experienced his own healing. He was healed of his prejudicial views, and the gospel was made more expansive.
Jesus railed against the religious leaders for making religion about a set of traditions, about the things we do, about a correct way to do things. And he was right. We spend too much time worrying about the right way to do things, and in doing that we miss the heart of the gospel. Even us Mennonite—who are pretty casual about worship and tradition—can be pretty staunch in our view of what is right and correct.
But Jesus also learned something important in his encounter with the Gentile woman—Jesus learned that our words and actions expose what is in our hearts. And we don’t always like what we see.
Jesus warned people to watch out for what is in the heart, and not worry about what we do. James, on the other hand, warned us against listening to the word of God, but not putting it into action. Perhaps these words seems contradictory, but they really are two sides of the same coin. And we see that in the story of Jesus and the Gentile woman. Jesus put his beliefs into action, and when the truth of them were called to task, Jesus had to change. He had to change both his heart and actions.
What resulted was a change in his ministry, a change in his heart and a change in the way he interacted with those around him. This courageous woman changed Jesus’ heart, and in doing so, made the gospel an invitation for all of us.
May we, like Jesus, have hearts and minds that are willing to change, and actions that reflect our deepest convictions. AMEN.
What can I do?