Hearts and Hands
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 2, 2018
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
After spending several weeks in John’s Gospel, this morning we return to Mark. As a way of getting back into the story line, let’s review events prior to our reading: Jesus teaches; he heals the sick; he performs many miracles—including feeding the 5000, walking on water, and raising a 12-year-old girl from death to life! It’s no wonder news of Jesus spreads throughout the land. It’s no wonder some Pharisees and scribes come all the way from Jerusalem to witness him in action. Of course, they must check things out. If Jesus is doing all that they’ve heard he’s doing—he’s a force with which to be reckoned. He could usurp their power. He could upset the status quo between the Roman Empire and the Jews. Yes, it’s worth a trip.
The religious leaders arrive on the scene. They gather around Jesus and his disciples. In no time they’re out of sorts. What in the world are the disciples doing? Are they really eating without first washing their hands? The word used for “hands” in verse 2 is koinos, which means “common” or “ordinary.” For these Pharisees, food should never be eaten with ordinary hands—only sanctified hands will do![i] While the complaint is made against the disciples, the quarrel is really with Jesus, who is their teacher.
Let’s try to imagine something similar happening here in our midst. Picture our Executive Presbyter, Deb Bibler, has received word that you have a heretic preacher on your hands—espousing all sorts of crazy ideas. The Executive Presbyter calls the president of Columbia Theological Seminary to discuss the rumors. They decide to call in a few other experts. Walter Brueggemann, retired Old Testament professor, is contacted as well as preaching professor, Anna Carter Florence. On the next Lord’s Day, they show up in mass. It just so happens that your pastor preaches a wonderful sermon (now don’t laugh, it could happen!) and we have a church full of people—even the balconies are jam-packed. Seven baptisms, Holy Communion, and the Blessing of the Hands follow the sermon. The music is exceptional. After the service the religious authorities request a meeting with the pastor and session members to discuss the events of the morning. The first thing on their agenda? They want to know why we had a Blessing of the Hands since that isn’t mentioned in the Book of Order. Seriously! In the context of the greater happenings of the day, that’s what our visitors want to discuss? Ridiculous! Right?
While the ridiculous complaint made against the disciples seems to be about hygiene—it isn’t. It’s about the way these particular Pharisees and scribes interpret practices of Jewish ritual purification. Although certain cleanliness practices are required for priests as they prepare for holy work, no Old Testament text says that everyone must wash his or her hands before eating. Probably over time, some religious leaders began to espouse that the rules applying to the priests regarding hand washing should be applied to everyone. Now, obviously the idea hasn’t totally caught on—since the disciples are called on the carpet for their behavior.
In response to the claim of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus, never one to mince words, calls it like he sees it. “You hypocrites. Isaiah was right about you when he wrote—this people honor me with their lips when their hearts are far from me.” Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophet and changes the conversation. The Greek term “hypocrites” describes an actor whose face is hidden behind a mask. Jesus calls the religious rulers on the carpet for living phony lives—paying God lip service while presenting their human teachings as divine commandments.[ii]
While Jesus denies any error, it isn’t the Mosaic Law, in general, that Jesus rejects. After all, it’s not as if he’s on the verge of gathering up a busload of people to go across town for a pork chop sandwich! No, what Jesus rejects is any interpretation of the law that clouds the intent of the law. Biblical commands never take precedence over love and compassion. We have learned this slowly—from slavery to the position of women in the church to being inclusive of all people. Without a doubt, we are still learning this lesson. [iii]
Later in our reading, Jesus tells the people that uncleanness and evil don’t originate from the outside of a person anyway. They begin from the inside. They begin in the heart. Holiness, too, begins in the heart, which motivates the hands to be about doing the will of our Holy God. For holy living, hearts and hands go together. Because spiritually speaking, no matter how often we wash our hands, they cannot be holy unless our heart is holy.
In a moment, we’ll turn our attention to the work of our hands—instruments that are a gift from God. 1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” God calls us to holy living and holy work. The work may be to prepare the Lord’s Table for our meal this morning, to sing in the choir, to help out with the Generations of Faith Sunday School Class. The work may be outside of the church—at the side of a friend or family member, at the office, at school, while gardening, while caring for a loved one, while preparing or sharing a meal. All kinds of work can be holy work if it is motivated by love of Christ. And Christ needs you to be about his work so that his love will reign—for all people—for all time.
In the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[The Blessing of the Hands to follow.]
[i] Douglas R.A.Hare, Feasting on the Word, 22-23.
[ii] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 611.
[iii] Anders as quoted at http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/08/pentecost-14b-september-2-2012.html?m=1