Friends, we are jumping into the gospel according to Mark this morning. We encounter Jesus teaching in the towns around Genessaret, right in the middle of two feeding stories–the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand—and as we’ll see, Jesus seems to be stuck on food.
But there are also bigger questions at play here—the importance of tradition, how we treat our bodies and how we interact with the physical world around us, and how we judge others. Let us listen together for the word of the Lord.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and 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.) So 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?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 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.’
This story is pretty routine for many Christians today: Jesus upends hundreds of years of tradition and calls the religious leaders of his time hypocrites. But this passage was, especially for the early church, radical, confusing, and dangerous.
The ‘human precepts’ that Jesus refers to is the oral tradition that went along with the law of Moses. It was believed that this collection of rules, often taught alongside or on top of the law, was passed down from Moses, to generation after generation, as a way to keep the people one step further away from accidentally sinning and thus, making themselves impure and unacceptable to God.
But it seems these Pharisees in particular were a little obsessed with what we would call ‘ritual purity.’ Ritual purity was about cleanliness, not morals. It was eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong ones. It was washing in a particular way at particular times with a certain amount of water or oil. None of these ritual purity questions were about the heart—you could follow all of those rules and still be greedy, hateful, prideful, self-righteous and threatening.
But those Pharisees weren’t concerned with whether Judas was stealing or Peter was prideful. They chose to try to publicly shame Jesus and his disciples over concerns about their ritual purity—they weren’t following the rules. They were breaking with tradition.
And that’s where Jesus makes a radical claim: that God cares more about what’s going on in our hearts and how we choose to behave than whether we’ve followed the ways of faithfulness someone else has laid out for us.
But making that distinction—between what God has commanded and what our traditions ask of us—is no small task. It’s so much easier to either throw all of these traditions out the window, or just say: do these five things and don’t do these six things, and you’ll be fine. It’s so much harder to look at stories like this one, or Paul’s letters, or the prophets of the Old Testament and ask: what is God calling me to do, to be, to grow into? What is God calling me to leave behind?
Even we, as Presbyterians, have plenty of ‘rules’ and traditions that were never even mentioned, not to mention commanded, by scripture. The elders and deacons and I are governed not only by the Bible, but also by the PCUSA’s Book of Order. As a church, we follow a church calendar, which tells us when to celebrate Christmas and Easter and everything in between. We’ve even given colors to that calendar, to help us tell and mark that time. We follow a certain order of worship most weeks, unless Ethan and I get bored and change something, and we meet on the same day at the same time every week. From where we worship to how we read and interpret the Bible to where we sit in the sanctuary, we have no shortage of traditions.
And those traditions aren’t bad things if they actually help us be better Christians.
But those rules, traditions, and habits can also be really unhelpful when we, like the Pharisees, use those traditions to try to exert control over the lives and behavior of others. When we say “you worship differently, or speak differently about God, or behave differently in these 532 ways, so you can’t actually be a Christian.”
Stories like this one are the reason “Pharisee” and “hypocrite” are pretty much interchangeable in our culture.
Karen Pidock-Lester, a pastor and theologian, says it really well: “There is a difference between the human precepts developed and handed down to us by generations of earnest people, and the commands of the Holy One. No matter how much wisdom human precepts contain, no matter how they have shaped and defined a people, they are not to be equated with the word of God. When they are, ugly things happen.”
Ugly things like shame, and church conflicts, and accusations of hypocrisy.
Here’s the thing: it’s not that God doesn’t care about how we live our lives, how we treat our bodies, and how we interact with the people and creation around us. If you go back to the list of things that Jesus names as impurities of the heart, they still involve our bodies and actions: theft, murder, lies, adultery.
But Jesus also shows us an important distinction: there are all sorts of things that can damage our bodies and relationships and even our minds, but none of those things can make us unworthy of God’s love, or too unholy to be redeemed.
And that’s where we must learn to distinguish between guilt and shame. Brene Brown, a researcher and social worker, tells us that guilt is “I’ve done something wrong,” while shame tells us “I am wrong—I am inherently flawed, and therefore unworthy of love.”
Guilt is a good thing, because when we hold up our actions and compare them to our values, and what God asks of us, a little discomfort is helpful when they don’t match up.
Shame, on the other hand, prevents us from engaging with our guilt—because if our failures make us inherently unworthy of love, care, and belonging, we are going to run as far and as fast as we can from that discomfort.
And that’s precisely why shame has no place in the church. We all have guilt. That’s why we have a prayer of confession at the beginning of every service—not because we need to be reminded of our failures, but because we need to let them go. Because God is always ready to forgive us, to remind us that we are loved, that we do belong here, and that we can start again. And again. And again.
That’s the scandal of the gospel, and the thing that sometimes makes us feel like hypocrites ourselves—that we hold up the values of compassion, integrity, hope, grace, love, forgiveness, and faith, yet when we look at our everyday lives, we continually fail to act on them.
But what makes us Christ-followers and not hypocrites is our willingness to offer that same grace, that same sense of love and belonging, to everyone else. To not shout their failures from the rooftops while we hide ours in our internet history or under the couch. To refuse to manipulate others with shame, to never withhold that basic love and belonging in order to control behavior.
Before I went on vacation, I spent an entire day at a seminar for clergy focused specifically on addiction, hosted by Genesis Hospitals in Zanesville. There were dozens of us gathered to hear from hospital chaplains, doctors, nurses, parents, social workers, and clinicians who treat people with addictions every day.
It was a lot of information, and a lot of good information on the science of addiction—how certain substances actually re-wire our brain and the physical symptoms of withdrawal and the most common signs of relapse.
But the idea at the core of every presentation, from every social worker, hospital chaplain, addiction specialist, doctor, nurse, and parent, was this: no one is their addiction. Every person with an addiction is precisely that—a person, with a whole life story, who started using to numb some existential pain, to forget about something, to fit in or belong, and soon it was beyond their control.
Treating addiction is complex and requires a lot of help—it’s not just about abstaining from a certain substance, but dealing with the underlying issues, too.
But the task for us as pastors and for the church as a whole is simple: compassion above all else. Because while the world says “he’s just an addict, she did this to herself, they’re just bad seeds,” Jesus says: “whatever goes into a person from the outside cannot defile, since it goes not into the heart…”
As someone who knows and loves people with addictions, I know that loving them and accepting them does not excuse or prevent bad behavior. I know how hard and confusing it can be to set boundaries with someone who doesn’t see things or live the same way you do.
But while shame might be minimally effective in controlling some behaviors, it definitely will not heal the wounds underneath them. Shame will not help them recover a sense of their inherent worth, and it will not help them love themselves enough to decide to treat their bodies and minds in a new and different way. Shame certainly won’t encourage anyone to ask for help—because if we’re not deserving of love or care or dignity, then we’re definitely not worthy of the time and energy and therapy and hope it takes to get clean and stay sober.
This is Jesus’ radical claim: we are not our addictions or our worst behaviors. We are not even our best behaviors. We are not the worst thing that’s ever happened to us. We are not our grades or our sports scores. We are not what we eat, we are not what we drink, we are not what we don’t drink. We are not our weight or our hair color or our clothing. We are not our job titles. None of that is what determines our worth and our value in God’s eyes, and none of that determines the hope we have in Christ Jesus.
We are forgiven, we are loved, and we are free—because God said so. Because Jesus’ last words on the cross were not “we’ll see,” but it is finished.
We all have work to do—old ideas to challenge and prune away, new information to find, guilt to root out and new wells of compassion and love to discover deep within us.
So rather than fall back on the Pharisees’ temptation to control behavior, let’s make this—God’s house–the shame-free zone where we can do that work, where we can practice the steps to this dance of guilt, grace, and gratitude, where we can learn to love and be loved, knowing that no matter what we’ve done or left undone, we will always belong, in body and soul, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
 Feasting on the Gospels–Mark: A Feasting on the Word Commentary (Kindle Locations 7167-7168). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.