14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 29, 2021, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas
How many of you were brought up with the saying, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”? The saying is found nowhere in the Bible, but originated with John Wesley and was constantly used by parents to encourage their children to practice physical hygiene, including bathing, showering and washing their hands before supper.
Good hygiene should be encouraged, and Judaism does well in continuing its adherence to laws of purification, some of which have been passed on to Gentiles, such as washing before supper or after using the restroom. Yet while these are healthy practices, they shouldn’t be regarded as essential to spiritual salvation or being in right relationship with God. It amounts to works righteousness convincing believers that if they do certain things, their heavenly reward is assured. How easy salvation would be if, like trained animals, we knew what to do to be rewarded.
However, we are trained animals. If Jesus’ mother, Mary, had asked him, “How many times have I told you to wash your hands before supper?” I don’t think we would have had any opposition from him.
In many other ways we have been trained to believe that if you worked hard, stay in school, go to college or learn a trade, you would do well in life. But nowadays material rewards are never certain without degrees in science, math, technology, or engineering.
Material success is governed by material wealth; and while personal and spiritual happiness can be achieved through these disciplines, people who pursue career paths and callings outside these more lucrative choices are often those who hear a different drum.
I imagine that there were many who could have easily objected when Jesus said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile.” (Mark 7:15) Jewish dietary laws were well aware of the physical and fatal harms incurred by eating food improperly treated and prepared. People of Jesus’ day were aware of death-dealing pathogens and poisons in many plants and animals. To therefore assume that nothing a person ate could be harmful had the effect of a person in our present day and age refuting the COVID vaccine. It is utter nonsense!
But if you were that person about to raise your hand in objection, a well-meaning disciple would have caught your hand and cautioned you to hold back a moment since Jesus was once again off in some other realm of reality and would come down soon, allowing you to say, “Oh, now I get it!”
Jesus was not refuting the dangers of bad food and hygiene, but the more harmful dangers of social divisions motivated by malicious intent that poisons our souls and corrupts our behavior. “All these evil things come from within,” he said, “and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:23)
It is from the motivation of evil that the question of works righteousness is raised: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17), rather than the more heartfelt question, “What must I be to live eternally?”
This question of works righteousness: What must I do to inherit eternal life? is raised by individuals with lucrative, financially rewarding careers, first by a rich man in Mark’s gospel and, later, by a lawyer in Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:25) But the reply Jesus offers begins with the heart: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)
In short, before you do anything with God, you must be someone from God. And when God has captivated and engaged your entire being – heart, soul, mind, and strength – then, and only then, are you less concerned about the material, external substances you devour and consume, for you, by so being, have become God’s offering and spiritual food that feeds and nourishes a starving world.
“Do you not know,” said the Apostle Paul, “that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1st Corinthians 6:19) Be less concerned about physical hygiene and what goes into you, and more concerned about spiritual hygiene and what comes out of you. Wash your heart before your hands, and offer your life as heavenly manna from God. Amen.