Whenever you hear the gospelers making a comment about the Pharisees and scribes, you should pay attention. You should do so not because they’re portrayed as the foil for Jesus, as the “bad guys,” but because of what they represent. Far too often we think of them as these mythic villains in Jesus’ stories and then conflate them with all Jewish people, ignoring the reality that Jesus and his followers were also Jewish too. It would be far better to describe them simply as religious leaders or even the religious elite. A few weeks ago our supply priest Christine Whittaker preached a good and important sermon on the Jews and the rise of anti-semitism through the use of scripture. We must not do this, and instead continue to reach out to repair damages done both in the past and the current day by us Christians to our Jewish neighbors.
But by calling the Pharisees and scribes the religious leaders, it’s easy to recognize them as people dressed like me. The ones up front. Or the ones who gain status at a house of worship because of their identity as a standout member of the community. The vestry, the ones who run things behind the scenes, the in-crowd at church. That’s what we should hear in place of “the Pharisees and some of the scribes” when Mark begins our lesson from today. He’s talking about the ones who kept things running smoothly, who had incorporated all the written and unwritten rules into their daily rituals, and expected others to do so too.
Like the washing of hands.
Which doesn’t sound like too big of a religious issue for us these days, but rather just having good hygiene. Even while Noah and I were on our trek to Kilimanjaro, our guides reminded us often to use some hand gel at meal times so we didn’t get sick. But in Jesus’ day a command from the Torah—the first five books in our Bible—instructed priests to ritually wash their hands before eating meat that had been offered as a sacrifice. It centered on being holy and pure before God.
Along the way this law got broadened by the religious leaders to include any adherents of Judaism since the people of Israel had been described in scripture as a “kingdom of priests.” The thinking went that if they were all priests, then they should all follow the priestly code. So they wanted all Jews to wash their hands before eating to show respect to God.
But that wasn’t the law given in the Torah, as they themselves acknowledge. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” they ask. In his response, Jesus questioned their motives. Was it really about holiness, or was it a small group of elites trying to gain the upper hand?
Were the religious types—the folks like me—trying to determine who was in and who was out with God?
The fantastic film Chocolat focuses on a simple French village at the end of the 1950s. The town remains very proper, under the strong and choking hand of the local count whose family has led the town for many years. The very first of his family to govern, as a faithful Roman Catholic, drove out the protestant Huguenots in order to be pure. The control desired by the current count goes so far to include his reading of the sermons written by the young parish priest before he delivers them.
A woman named Vianne comes into town with her daughter and goes about setting up a Mayan chocolate shop. She opens it on the first weekend of Lent—much to the horror of the count—and she is also an atheist refusing to bend to the will of the count for her to go to church. He’s infuriated in part by her cheek to open a chocolaterie during Lent but also by her blatant disregard for the rules he wants the town to live by. However, townspeople begin to show up to buy the enticing chocolate, and we see a growing conflict between the two.
Soon a group of river gypsies float into town, and Vianne befriends their captain. The count is enraged by these people he calls “river rats,” and looks to drive them away just like his ancestor did to the huguenots. Signs go up in the village proclaiming they aren’t welcome here. We see the hate and vitriol emerge from the ones who seek to keep things pure and clean. It all escalates rather quickly in the film with some staggering acts of hatred.
And it’s the young priest who reminds the town, and us, about who Jesus really is. He goes off his approved script on Easter morning, saying that he’s not quite sure what should be the theme of his homily. He finally says, “I’d [like] to talk about [Jesus’] humanity. I mean how He lived His life, here on Earth. His kindness, His tolerance… Listen, here’s what I think. I think that we can’t go around… measuring our goodness by what we don’t do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think… we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create… and who we include.”
Jesus said, “Listen to me and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile…. For it is from within, from the human heart that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
So much of what passes for Christianity these days in our culture focuses on the outside. What people do or don’t do. Who people are and where they come from. We have somehow forgotten Jesus’ teaching that it’s out of the heart that all this stuff comes and not the way we live according to the rules that we somehow dreamed up. That our staying on the straight and narrow—whether or not we do the perceived right things—doesn’t whitewash our interior lives. Even if we sing in the choir on Sunday morning praising God, if we harbor bitterness toward a co-worker then we’re not pleasing God. If we serve at a local non-profit but also cheat on our expense reports, then we’re not truly following the Almighty.
I think it’s time for us to fully embrace the call to live as Christ’s followers ourselves. To be less concerned about the outer appearances of things, and more concerned with what’s in our hearts. To recognize that arrogance and greed, deceit, anger, engaging in inappropriate relationships, and the other vices mentioned by Jesus come from within. They reflect what’s inside. They show what a person is really like.
So let’s work hard to look past how someone presents themselves to us and our world. Let’s not give in to hurtful stereotypes about others, but look for signs of God’s work in their life. Let’s be generous in exhibiting grace, assuming the best of the person rather than the worst. Let us not live as those seeking to control others through rules that are only meant to shackle or humiliate them, and let’s also work to counteract such laws in our society.
As Jesus’ followers let us respond with his grace and love. Let us repent and seek forgiveness when out of our hearts something evil bubbles up. Let us be those who build others up, encouraging them in their relationship with God, and help them find fullness of life through the teaching, healing, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. Let us praise God both with our lips and with our lives, giving our all in faithful service to the Almighty.