Sabbath Day Thoughts – Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The phone calls started at about 2PM. It had been Youth Sunday at the church. As the Pastor for Youth and Children, I had worked with the kids for weeks to plan their special day. They were liturgists. They acted out the scripture reading with a skit. In place of a traditional sermon, a few high school students had shared reflections about their latest mission trip. Then, the crowning act of our worship had been communion. In a departure from the norm, four youth had been servers, passing the bread and the grape juice along the pews for all the worshipers to partake. It had been a lovely Sunday, so I wasn’t surprised that members might want to check in and celebrate.
My first caller, who I will name Fred, often stopped by the church. He was a widowed WWII veteran, and I suspect that a church office visit was always on his weekly “to do” list. On that Youth Sunday, our conversation started pleasantly enough, but it took a sharp turn when it came to the Lord’s Supper. “Who was that tall girl you had passing the plate?” Fred wanted to know. “You must mean Jenna (not her real name),” I answered. Jenna was a striking teen with long, dark hair and big brown eyes. I had been feeling particularly self-congratulatory about Jenna’s participation in the service. Her parents were going through a rough patch and I’m sure that things weren’t easy for Jenna at home.
Fred didn’t congratulate me. Instead, he wanted to know if I had noticed Jenna’s skirt. I wracked my brain, trying to remember. “Hmm,” I puzzled. “I’m not really sure I noticed, but I think it was denim. Wasn’t it?” Next, I could hear impatience in the voice of the normally mild-mannered Fred, “I’m not talking about the fabric. I’m talking about the length. We could see her knees and you had her serving communion.” I was floored. I wish I could say that Fred’s was the only concern that I heard about my judgment, the youth, and our worship leadership. If I hadn’t realized it before, I certainly learned in those first years of ministry that folks have particular notions about what pleases God. Cross those lines, and you’ll find yourself fielding phone calls or receiving anonymous notes.
Our preoccupation with what pleases God is nothing new. The Pharisees and some scribes took exception to Jesus’ disciples, who sat down to eat without first ritually washing their hands in a rite of purification. In first-century Israel, there was diversity of practice when it came to table fellowship. On one end of the spectrum were Jesus and the disciples. They were known for breaking bread with sinners, tax collectors, and at least one leper—all people who might be deemed unclean. When it came to ritual hand washing, Jesus seemed little concerned. When the 5,000 were fed, Jesus did not send the disciples around with water and towels for a little purification before multiplying the loaves and fish.
At the other end of the spectrum were the Pharisees, a Jewish sect whose very name meant “set apart.” The Pharisees followed the Mishnah, the long oral tradition of teachings about the Torah. This tradition of the elders insisted that to be a holy people, pleasing to God, Jewish people needed to follow the same purity restrictions that the Torah mandated for priests while they were actively serving in the Temple. The Torah required priests to ritually wash their hands and feet before presiding at a ceremonial meal, so the Mishnah taught that all Jews should do the same for every meal. That’s a lot of washing. When the Pharisees saw the disciples’ disregard for handwashing, they thought, “This Jesus isn’t a very good rabbi if he doesn’t share our concern for holiness.”
It all sounds like an obscure first century worship war. It takes a lot of explaining just to have the whole reading make sense, just to understand why folks were so hot under the collar. But if we take a moment to genuinely and honestly reflect, most of us will admit that we have had our moments when we have thought that what was going on at church wasn’t pleasing to us or to God.
A local woman, who has never worshiped with our congregation, once told me that she “hates” the responsive liturgy, like the call to worship or the confession, that are part of Sunday mornings in mainline congregations. She prefers the ecstatic praise and tongues of the apostolic and Pentecostal tradition.
A seasoned and gifted female colleague shared with me that a young man told her she could never be a real pastor because she is a woman.
I served as a student pastor at a very large, high steeple church. The senior pastor had a beautiful tenor voice. One communion Sunday, he sang the words of institution: “On the night of his arrest, he took the cup. After giving thanks, he lifted it up. This is my blood, poured out for you . . .” It was lovely and memorable. But after the service, he was accosted by an angry woman, “This is a church, not a Broadway show. Next, I expect you’ll be hoisting up your robe and dancing for us.” In each of these instances, people felt personally offended, yet they also felt that what transpired was an offense to God. They imagined that God was every bit as angry and indignant as they were.
Jesus’ response to his Pharisee critics is among the harshest of his teachings, “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, taking their own words and attributing them to God.’ But you have abandoned the commandment of God to cling to your own human tradition.” The fact that Jesus was quoting the Prophet Isaiah tells us that, even back then, this sort of squabble about what pleases God had been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
According to Jesus, if the Pharisees were really worried about being a holy people, set apart for God, then they would be better served by pondering their own hearts—attending to their inmost thoughts and their everyday actions. I’m sure Jesus’ words, and his pointed mention of sins like fornication, murder, deceit, and pride, made his opponents see red. I’m also sure that Jesus’ words eased the shame and embarrassment that his disciples had felt in response to the Pharisee’s public criticism.
When Fred called me on that Sunday afternoon to voice his opinion about youthful knees at the Lord’s Supper, I was still so wet behind the ears as a pastor that I didn’t really engage his concern. I listened, and he eventually hung up. It never occurred to me that some of his concern could have been what Jesus might call a “heart problem.” That long-legged, doe-eyed Jenna was not unlike what Fred’s late wife must have looked like, back in the day when the boys were coming home from Europe, war weary after defeating Hitler and his Nazis. Perhaps there was even an unspoken sexual spark that felt unbidden and unwanted as Fred pondered the body and blood of Christ for him. If I had been a more experienced pastor, I might have invited Fred to go deeper, to understand his feelings better. I might have asked him to speak just for himself and not for God.
I suspect that the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic has brought out the Pharisee in all of us. After all, we are Presbyterians and we do like to have things done decently and in order. There we were, liking our Sunday routine, but then COVID-19 swept across the nation in repeated waves that closed church doors and made us worship online. Eighteen months into this, we are wearing masks yet again. We have traded our sanctuary for the Great Hall, singing for a soloist, the pipe organ for the piano, bulletins for a slideshow. It doesn’t feel familiar. It doesn’t feel holy. We are not sure we like it—and we just might think we are speaking for God about that.
Jesus would tell us that it is the perfect time to ponder our hearts. With humility and deep honesty, we might even see our critique and dissatisfaction as a natural consequence of this uncertain time when nothing feels safe or familiar—and we wonder if anything will ever feel safe and familiar again. With faith and courage, we might even begin to speak for ourselves instead of God. We might bring our hearts back home to the Lord, who welcomes sinners and Pharisees. We might open our hearts to Jesus, who loves us, saves us, and dies for us, even though we have a penchant for breaking his heart.
Despite my leadership of Youth Sundays, Fred and I became friends. He genuinely appreciated and generously supported the mission work that the Youth Group pursued in their summer trips to Appalachia, where they made homes warmer, safer, and drier for the rural poor. Fred must have quelled his worship concerns because he never again raised the alarm, even though there were other short skirts and low-slung jeans with protruding boxer shorts and even some cleavage in the services that followed. I hear that a number of years later when Fred died, he left a small legacy to the church, the thankful gift of a holy heart. Amen.
Hare, Douglas R.A. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni. “Homiletical Perspective on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Skinner, Matt. “Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 2, 2012. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22-2/commentary-on-mark-71-8-14-15-21-23-5
Johnson, Elizabeth. “Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 2, 2018. Accessed online at Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary
7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”