Proper 17B/Ordinary 22B/Pentecost 15

7Now 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.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

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.”

17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 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.”

When I was an associate in South Carolina, we would regularly sing a song at Vacation Bible School about wanting to be a sheep:

  • I just wanna be a sheep
    Baa, baa, baa, baa
    I just wanna be a sheep
    Baa, baa, baa, baa
    I pray the Lord my soul to keep
    I just wanna be a sheep
    Baa, baa, baa, baa,

One of the verses is about the Religious Leaders in Jesus’ day:

  • Don’t wanna be a Pharisee
    Don’t wanna be a Pharisee
    ‘Cause they’re not fair you see
    Don’t wanna be a Pharisee

The Pharisees have gotten a bad rap and really are misunderstood by Christians today.  So let’s begin with a few Interesting facts about the Pharisees

  • They were the religious Jewish Leaders during the time of Herod’s temple.
  • There were about 6,000 Pharisees at this time.
  • They were a type of spiritual lawyer.
  • They were the authorized interpreters of all Jewish laws.
  • They grew into a feeling of superior elitists or separatists.
  • Their law considered you an apostate if did not follow traditions and customs.
  • Belief was irrelevant, only adherence to the law mattered.

So there are some facts about the Pharisees, but how did we get here? And what can we learn from these religious leaders?

To understand the leaders of Jesus’ day, you have to start more than 500 years before Jesus was born. Our spiritual ancestors believed that they were the chosen people of God and that God would never let them down. They believed that God was based in the temple in Jerusalem and that, therefore, God would never let anything happen to Jerusalem. There could be hard times, of course, but ultimately God would save them. Most of us, if we admit it, have something in our mind or heart that we feel God will certainly protect. For many of us it is our life after death. For others, it is a more vulnerable hope such as the well-being of our children or even the traditions of our churches. The point is that to our ancestors God’s care for the temple in Jerusalem was the one sure thing of their faith. But 587 years before the birth of Christ, the unimaginable happened. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the temple was destroyed. The Babylonians took the leaders of Jerusalem away into exile, and no one was allowed to return for 50 years. An incredible blow!

And when they got back, they had some serious thinking to do. Some, of course, gave up on God altogether as many people we know give up when their assumptions about God are overturned. But most of them stayed with it and tried to figure out what all of this meant. What had gone wrong? They figured they had failed God in some major way. They had missed the point so they were left wondering what the real point might be. Stated somewhat secularly–what are the interests of God, what does God think is important about the way we live our lives? There were many theories. If you read Isaiah, you will find him arguing that the problem was that God’s people had become isolated from the world and its problems. God’s interests, said Isaiah, are in people caring for others in God’s name, involved in the world and its pain. If you read Ezra and Nehemiah, you will find the opposite argument. God’s interest is in purity and in keeping people undefiled by the world. It is not engagement with others but avoidance of them that pleases God.

It was not an easy debate nor was there a quick resolution. The debate still goes on today because each side has a piece of truth to it. Is the church primarily holy space, separate from the world in its confusion, or is the church a launching pad for service and a gathering place for the least and the lost? Do we come to church to get away from the world or to get into it in new ways? Is the business of the church to look after its own or to risk getting tangled up with others? Does the separation of church and state mean the separation of church and politics or the church and community issues? Just what is the proper relationship between the people of God and nonbelievers? People of faith and reason can make good points on all sides of those questions.

To make a long story shorter–it may be too late now to make it short–the Ezra and Nehemiah folks carried the day. Judaism decided that God wanted them to be separate from the world. God wanted them to be pure and spotless. The word Pharisee means literally “separate ones.” Over the years the idea of separating the good folks from the bad folks got a little out of hand. The more ritual you observe the more you were different from others, and therefore the holier you were. That is the world into which Jesus was born. And when Jesus began his public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth, do you remember what he decided to read from?

Right! It was Isaiah–one of those on the losing side 500 years before. Jesus chose the passage that says he is sent to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, preach to the captives, restore sight to the blind, and set free those who suffer. It is exactly opposite the view of the Pharisees who said that good people should be separated from the world. He was basically saying that the community made the wrong choice when it chose purity over involvement, ritual over service. After 500 years of looking at it one way, you can see why the Pharisees and others had trouble understanding things differently, but we have had 2,000 years of Jesus’ point in the argument, and we still struggle with it.

We have our rituals that we have chosen over service.  We have our traditions that come before participation in God’s work.  We have polity that comes prior to provision.We have our traditions that are more than traditions.  We which of our traitions at the Presbyterian Church at Woodbury have become more important than our mission?

To ask it another way: how much are we willing to change in order to reach a new generation with the Gospel. And, perhaps just as importantly, what are we unwilling to change. What tradition, that is, is so important that no matter whether it helps us achieve our mission or not it preserves our sense of the orderliness of the world and shores up our identity and therefore can’t be touched?

What would need to change, in order to make our worship and congregational life more understandable, accessible, useful, and helpful? By asking these questions we might begin to put mission ahead of tradition.

That won’t be an easy journey, of course. You’ve probably heard the old joke, “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change? Change? My grandfather donated that lightbulb!” We love our traditions. I love our traditions. They have helped to mediate the faith to us in countless ways. But what if they’re not doing that for the emerging generation? What if we’ve come close to worshiping the traditions instead of the God they were supposed to point to? And what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission:

  • whether to care for our aging parents,
  • feeding the hungry,
  • opening our doors to the homeless,
  • making our building available to after school tutoring,
  • sharing the Gospel with folks much of the church rejects,
  • partnering with the community to care for more of God’s children,
  • whatever,
  • what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission ahead of even our most cherished traditions?

What then?  My prayer is that we would not be modern day Pharisees, but we would abandon human traditions and hold onto the commandment of God!

Commentary provided by David Lose, Matt Skinner, Henry Langknecht and Francis H. Wade