Islam. For example, according to the Islamic Supreme Council of America, “Islam . . . is firmly founded on the concept of ‘rule of law’ . . . Muslim citizens must adhere to Islamic law—Shariah. If a Muslim citizen commits a religious violation, he is judged according to Islamic law . . . The intent of Islamic law is not punitive, as much as corrective and reformative ” (http://islamicsupremecouncil.org/understanding-islam/legal-rulings/52-understanding-islamic-law.html).
According to Pew Research (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/07/worlds-muslim-population-more-widespread-than-you-might-think/) , Islam is the world’s second largest religion (23% of world population) behind Christianity (33% of world population). By contrast, Judaism, also based on Law (Torah), accounts for 0.22% of the world’s population (http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_ Adherents.html ). Hinduism (14%) and Buddhism (6%) both have their own distinctions, but also function according to rules and laws. Even without mentioning smaller groups, that’s a lot of people caught up in rules-religions. The Gospel is acutely different.
Gospel.That brings us to today’s Gospel report from Mark chapter 7:1-23.
Jesus’ fame in Galilee now brings Pharisees with their scribes from Jerusalem to investigate him more closely (7:1). They catch his disciples eating with ceremonially defiled hands. This violates traditional Pharisaic rules of washing everything possibly made “unclean” by sinners, tax-collectors or encroaching Gentiles (7:2-4). Why, they want to know, does Jesus allow this (7:5)? His answer is unexpected prosecution . . .
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that” (7:6-13).
Two critical points. One, Jesus was not anti-law. He condemned the Jewish Pharisees for letting go the commands of God. Two, Jesus charged the Pharisees with vain worship of God, which he defined as replacing God’s commands with men’s traditions. The Law allowed people to devote certain property to the LORD. (“But no devoted thing that a man devotes to the LORD, of anything that he has, whether man or beast, or of his inherited field, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the LORD–Leviticus 27:28). But the Pharisees used it to keep someone else (in this case needy parents) from having it. Men’s traditions over God’s commands equaled vain worship.
Four deficiencies. Here, then, are four deficiencies of rules-religions we can deduce from Jesus words . . .
- We humans can easily manipulate the rules to serve our self-centered purposes.
- Rule-manipulation often results in our hurting someone else.
- Religious rule-keeping has no power to change our character.
- The root of human moral corruption isn’t outside us, but inside.
Gospel again. To those last two deficiencies Jesus now turns . . .
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.'” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.”) He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean'” (7:14-23).
Two further critical points. One, Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees implies that being “clean” or “unclean” before God isn’t a secondary issue. He could have said, “Ceremonial defilement means nothing. I won’t even talk about it.” Rather, Jesus implicitly regarded the “cleanness” of our standing before God as critical.
Two, we are “unclean” before God because of what’s in us, not what touches us from outside—“evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” Who of us can claim we’ve never been “dirtied” inside by some of these “evils”?
So what is Mark, inspired by the Holy Spirit, telling us about the Gospel here? That the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed as near (1:15) is wholly “other” from our rules-religions, however commendable their aim. Jesus, as John the Baptist announced, will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:8b). As yet in Mark’s report and Jesus’ revelation, we have no details—no means, no methods—as to precisely how that kingdom comes nor what “baptize with the Spirit” means.
What we do know is that our defilement before God is serious . . . that rules-religions can’t resolve it because the dirt is inside not out . . . and that somehow the Gospel of the kingdom with the baptism of the Holy Spirit is good news about getting “clean.”
Islam isn’t the answer.
Judaism isn’t the answer.
Christian rules aren’t the answer.
Jesus is the answer.