Interpreting the Law like Jesus-Mark 7: 1-23
Pastor Brian - August 29, 2021
A pastor recently told me about an experience he had while doing interim work in New York City a number of years ago. He said there was a young man in this church who had a cultural tradition that bothered some of the older members. He was an active member and would help as an assisting minister a lot of the time. But the thing is he always wore a du-rag, even while serving as assisting minister. Now there was no rule against this, and nobody ever confronted him directly, but some of the members complained about this to the interim pastor. But the pastor came to the defense of the young man and was quick to point out that he always wore a du-rag that matched the liturgical season. Whether it was green like the liturgical paraments are today, red like on Pentecost or Reformation, purple during Lent, blue during Advent, or white for Christmas and Easter, it was clear that this young man didn’t wear a du-rag to be disrespectful or inappropriate. It was part of his part of his culture which he incorporated in his own way into the tradition of the church. It was part of his way of honoring God.
The scripture readings today are all about tradition. In the Old Testament reading Moses shares with the Israelites how God had blessed them with the Law—the Torah—to make them a wise and discerning people. An important thing for Christians to understand is that to Jews the Law wasn’t seen as a list of requirements for salvation; it was a gift from God describing how to live a good and fulfilling life. And how best to follow this Law, this Torah, was open to interpretation. There wasn’t one right way to look at it.
You see, long before Jesus’ time there were debates about this. Many different schools of thought existed within the Jewish tradition. Two of the best known teachers in the early first century were two rabbis named Shammai and Hillel. They would have been elders around the time Jesus was born and they both died before Jesus’ began his ministry, but their schools of thought lasted long past their deaths. Shammai was the one who had the more strict interpretation and Hillel the more lenient. They disagreed with each other on just about everything. For example, Shammai taught that only worthy students should be allowed to study the Torah; whereas Hillel taught that everyone should be allowed to study the Torah. Another example is when the two were asked if it would be ok to tell a little white lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. For example if an ugly bride asked how she looked. Shammai said it was never appropriate to lie and to tell her the truth. Hillel replied that every bride is beautiful on her wedding day.
We see some cases where Jesus clearly would have sided with the House of Hillel in his more lenient understanding of the Torah, such as not being so strict about what constitutes work on the Sabbath or not needing to wash hands before eating. On the flip side, however, there were instances where Jesus taught a more strict interpretation of the Law, perhaps siding with Shammai. One example is with divorce. Hillel said it was ok to divorce your wife for just about anything, even if she cooked something you didn’t like. A very loose interpretation there. Shammai only permitted divorce for very serious reasons. And in a world where divorced women were left very vulnerable and usually unable to fend for themselves, strict interpretations about divorce really helped protect women. This is probably why Jesus agreed with the more strict school of thought in this regard.
When we look at Jesus’ understanding of the Torah, he wasn’t especially more lenient or strict. His focus seems always to have been protecting the vulnerable. That’s why he sides with the stricter school on issues that protected vulnerable women or required fair treatment of outsiders, but sides with the more lenient school on issues that would put unnecessary strain on people trying to avoid defilement.
So that sets the stage for the debate we see in our Gospel reading today. And Jesus presents a view we might expect, considering how he consistently interprets the Law through the lens of compassion, in a way that looks out for the vulnerable—or in this case the poor and hungry. Just like when his disciples get criticized for plucking grain on the Sabbath, so here Jesus defends them for addressing their need to eat over the religious tradition of becoming ritually clean first.
Now obviously it’s a good idea to wash your hands before you eat. Today we understand germs and how diseases spread. So obviously God instructed Moses and the people of Israel with these laws for good reason. But Jesus did not want these laws to get in the way of what matters most: the law of love. And so at the end of this passage he gets right to the point, saying that it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles or eating a certain kind of food; it is what comes out of a person that defiles. It’s not what goes in, but what comes out that matters most.
The Letter of James we read from this morning describes what religion looks like when it focuses on this outward concern for others rather than ritual purity. James instructs us to not be merely hearers of the word but doers of the word. And in one of the famous lines of the New Testament he says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27). Just as Jesus taught his disciples to focus on doing good in the world and serving those in need, James asserts that to be truly religious means to love and serve our neighbors in need.
So how is it for us? Do we prefer to go through the motions of religious ritual? It may not be ritual hand washing, but maybe it’s having worship a certain way, always needing certain hymns or settings or worship styles. I know there’s things I like a certain way. And as a pastor I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make worship meaningful and inviting, how to do the tradition the right way, how to create a worship experience that’s both culturally relevant and true to the Lutheran Christian tradition.
But this Gospel text warns us to avoid falling into the trap of needing to do things “the right way.” The purpose of tradition is good, but following it too zealously can turn us into selfish holy rollers practicing country club religion. When we get so caught up in doing the ritual “right” we miss the point of what the ritual should be teaching us. We miss the fact that the tradition is supposed to draw us closer to God and inspire us to love and care for others, especially those in need.
And so that’s why it’s so important to look at our tradition with the same eyes Jesus did. To put on the mind of Christ and channel everything through the lens of compassion. Asking ourselves: is my interpretation of scripture protecting the vulnerable? Or is it too strict or oppressive or exclusive? Is my interpretation of the Law reflective of God’s goodness and love for all? Or is it too loose and self-centered? Remember Jesus always interprets the Torah in a way that most protects the vulnerable and encourages love and service of our neighbor. And as Christians, we are called to follow our Rabbi, learn to see the world through his lens, and put what we learn into action.
So as we reflect on our own traditions, let us pray for the courage to let go of whatever God is calling us to let go of. And for the willingness and creativity to discover whatever the Spirit is calling us to next.