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Sermon for Proper 17/Ordinary 22B Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Unwashed hands

August 15, 2015

exclusionFather Patrick always impressed me as being so holy, above it all. But I soon noticed that he kept himself to himself a lot. Hs otherworldliness was a front to cover up his inability to get along with people. Inside he was a scared and lonely man. He left the parish before I could get to know him. I hope that someday he will find out firsthand that God loves him. Thus wrote a Roman Catholic about a priest. (1)

In today’s gospel, Jesus criticises the Pharisees for being aloof and for looking down on people who don’t keep all their rules and regulations and it has led to centuries of anti-Semitism, where Christians blame Jews for being legalistic in contrast to Christianity where law is superseded by grace and forgiveness.

But it’s not true. Paul is proud to call himself a Pharisee. Nicodemus (a Pharisee) defended Jesus before the council, observing that the law demanded that the accused have a hearing. The Pharisees actually taught that ‘God is merciful, not out of weakness but out of understanding the true nature of humanity.’

They were Judaism’s first free-thinkers: they wouldn’t allow Judaism to be manipulated by the priests but adapted it to the needs of ordinary people. They said you shouldn’t take the bible literally but argue about it. They didn’t believe in rules for the sake of rules. One Pharisee wrote: ‘Disobedience to a precept with the intention of serving God is better than obedience without any such intention.’

Matthew has some of today’s gospel but in a different context, with no mention of food laws. Mark has no location in space or time, except to suggest that Pharisees had come all the way from Jerusalem simply to see if the disciples had washed their hands. Earlier, Mark wrote that Jesus told the disciples to have nothing to do with Gentiles. Yet here he is, with Gentiles. Scholars believe this story has nothing to do with Jesus and his relations with Pharisees but everything to do with the arguments of some of Mark’s community with some Jews later on.

Religious people have a tendency to get obsessed by rules, whether they are Jews, Christians or anything else. And then they project their tendencies on to others, to point away from themselves.

The films Philadelphia and Schindler’s List came out about the same time: In both of them, certain groups of people are declared unclean‑people with AIDS in one, Jews in the other. They are both excluded from the ranks of humanity, shunned by people who consider themselves clean. The clean people think if they can just get rid of the defective people,. then the world will be a safer place if they can just avoid contact with them, then they will not get sick themselves.

In Schindler’s List the Nazi commandant has fallen in love with his Jewish maid.

One night he goes down to the cellar where she lives ‑ostensibly to thank her for her hard work‑ but before long he is circling her while she stands there speechless, dressed in nothing but her white slip. I understand that, strictly speaking, you are not a human being,” he says to her.

“You, are Jewish vermin… but I ask you,” he says, reaching out to touch her face and then yanking his hand back as if he has been stung, “are those the eyes of a rodent? Are those the lips of a rodent? Is that the hair of a rodent?”

In his own insane way, he is struggling with his purity law. He is a high‑ranking member of a superior race. She is the germ that threatens to bring his race down.

he loves her – yet he cannot love her, not without contaminating himself, so he beats her instead, wrecking the cellar and her face at the same time. Who is the rodent here? (2)

While we project on to others, we can avoid looking inside ourselves. Emotions, especially love, harden. A frightened person rarely feels the full range of human emotion. Fear dominates one’s outlook on the world, other people, and oneself whenever feelings are consistently blunted. So Fr. Patrick could appear emotionally cold, “hard to get to know,” incapable of genuine relationships.

Religion has encouraged this perfectionism that leads to projection. One young man wrote: We were taught how to let the wafer melt in our mouths, without breaking it.

On my first communion the host got stuck to my palate. It was hard to stop it from coming into contact with my teeth. Breaking the body of the Lord was a sin.One of my friends, a priest, explained to me the difficulty he had in freeing himself from an anxiety which had been borne in on him during his study at minor seminary: He had a permanent worry lest impure images might cross his mind. For years he had not dared to look at a woman. He’d been taught: Don’t smoke, lie, play cards, work hard,

When the bell rang, they had to stop writing immediately; if need be, leaving a word unfinished. In the dormitory, it was forbidden to go to bed before the clock chimed.

The superior set the example: he stood in his pyjamas at the foot of his bed, at attention, and then lay down as the clock chimed.

And it’s not just catholics. A protestant missionary wrote: God’s demands of me were so high, and His opinion of me was so low, there was no way for me to live except under His frown. . . . All day long He nagged me: Why don’t you pray more? witness more? When will you ever learn self‑discipline? How can you allow yourself to indulge in such wicked thoughts? Do this. Don’t do that. Yield, confess, work harder … . . . God was always using His love against me. He’d show me His nail‑pierced hands, and then He would look at me glaringly and say, Well, why aren’t you a better Christian? Get busy and live the way you ought to. God considered me to be less than dirt. Oh, He made a great todo about loving me, but I believed that the acceptance I longed for could only be mine if I let Him crush nearly everything that was really me.

It probably starts in childhood. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson says it’s in the primary school years that we form the responsible child who wants to do things well, especially if you’re the eldest and the second child is a bit rebellious. Unlike their rebel siblings, they tend to obey and they don’t get into trouble. They may become perfectionists, addicted to doing things well, such as getting As or being a star athlete. Girls are also socialized into this role as they are taught that women care for others, even at some expense to themselves. As adults they tend to enter the helping professions where they can continue to be responsible.

Fundamentalists Anonymous helps people deal with guilt, depression, fear, and loneliness caused by a sick religion. They don’t have to believe in the literal truth of bible, the 6 days creation, give up drink, avoid mixing with unbelievers. They realise that the halo of the perfectionist turns into what Paul called‑‑‑the yoke of bondage”

The yoke was put on an animal to pull the plough or to join two oxen together.

But Paul used it like the Old Testament, where the yoke was laid upon the necks of a conquered people as a symbol of their enslavement. It was something humiliating and destructive. The Good News is that the way to God is not the path of perfect performance. So it’s ironic that many people think they’re not good enough to go to church

Like the Pharisees, Jesus, relativized the law: love God and your neighbour – not legalism. So he kept company with people who had a bad reputation,

who had no place in a society controlled by the ‘perfect’ and the priestly caste.

free from social prejudice he mixed with tax‑collectors of doubtful reputation,

who were regarded as thieves. He allowed prostitutes to kiss his feet. Said they’d get into heaven before the supercilious guardians of the law. He always struggled against neurotic observance of the law. when people censured him for having cured on the Sabbath day, he replied: ‘Which of you, if his sheep has fallen into a pit on the Sabbath day, will not go to get it out?’

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, says, ‘…pursuing false purity emerges as a central aspect of sin ….a person or a community that sets itself apart from the defiled world in a hypocritical sinlessness …excludes the boundary‑breaking other from its heart and its world…. we do this…because we cannot believe that God in his generosity has spread the table of his banquet before us now and invites all of us to come in out of the cold. (3)

The danger’s not outside us, It’s inside. If you want to be pure, start with yourself, instead of blaming the dirt on everyone else.

Meanwhile, God volunteers himself to everyone who still needs a scapegoat. I will take the blame, he says, you can give it to me. Give me what you hate, what you fear, out there and in here. I am not afraid of getting dirty. Germs don’t scare me. Now sit down at my table, whoever you are. Take. Eat. This is my body, given for you.

(1) Toxic Christianity: Healing Religious neurosis – P. DeBlaise (Crossroad 1992) p. 24

(2) Bread of Angels – B. Taylor (Cowley 1997) p. 102f

(3) Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation, by Miroslav Volf. (Abingdon 1996)

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