Mark 7:1-23 (Sunday 22, Year B) – full NRSV Gospel, not the strange shorter/edited form as in the lectionary.
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An Englishman, an Irishman and an Australian go into a bar and they notice, sitting over at one of the tables, a pastor, a priest and a rabbi. And the bartender looks up and says: What kind of a joke is this?
The worst thing that can happen when you try and tell a joke is that you’re looking at the people and clearly they’re not understanding and you have to go and try and explain it and all of the essence; all of the power of that attempted communication is lost.
We get something like this in the gospel today. When you actually read the text, it becomes very clear that Mark is wanting to tell this story of what is happening, but he’s aware that there’s going to be people who aren’t understanding what’s happening. One of the things that will strike you particularly if you read what’s called a “Red Letter Edition” (of the Bible) where the words of Jesus are written in red ink. My text that I read from today, has a whole bunch of red ink that is there on the page and it’s the first time in the Gospel of Mark that we get something like this. Most of the first part of this gospel is about the actions all you see is this sense of Jesus just immediately going from one thing to another, healing the sick; driving out demons, doing these mighty deeds, being caught up in this mystery and the disciples are just left breathless as they follow along like little children just struck in wonder by all of the things that Jesus is doing. He told a couple of parables back in in Chapter 4, so that’s where you get a few sections of red ink on the page.
But this is the first section where you get this big chunk of the words of Jesus, and he’s clearly wanting, must understand what he’s about now. One of the problems when we come to a passage like this is that we apply the categories that we’re used to. So when he starts talking about things that are clean and unclean. About rituals and rules when he starts comparing scripture and tradition, we have categories for all of those things, but the categories that a Catholic has are different to categories that are Protestant has. They are different to what a Jewish person or a secular scripture scholar will bring their own kind of categories and match and fix things in place according to those traditions or of understanding there. I’ve used the word tradition in another way.
But what Jesus is speaking about is about really none of those things. If we bring those categories to this passage, we won’t understand the richness, nor will we if we simply think that Jesus is having a go at physical things – about food and things that come from the outside and saying, look, it’s spiritual things, it’s about the matters of the heart.
He’s saying that, but it’s so much more than just a binary distinction between two categories or two realities. He’s inviting us into this deeper reality. And Mark is capturing some of it by all these little explanatory notes that are trying to unpack this. Trying to warn us and to flag for us that we need to understand this passage with Jewish 1st century eyes and hearts, we need to see the impact of what these words would have. When Jesus first spoke them, and that’s why you also need to see that some of that he speaks to the crowd. But a lot of it he only addresses to the disciples. Jesus is very wise.
He doesn’t want to confront the crowds and Pharisees and scribes until it’s absolutely necessary until the final week when every all of the gloves are off and everything unfolds as it’s meant to. As he faces the ultimate fulfillment of what all of these kind of conversation are going to point to. He wants us to experience freedom. He wants us to know that true liberation where our hearts are changed and transformed. It comes from God.
It comes from that power, and that power begins to be unleashed within us, to let us do the work that God originally intended for us. This transformation that makes us to be capable of being bearers of his message. In some ways, that’s what the last five weeks in our journey through the Gospel of John Chapter 6 have all been about. Jesus wanting to feed us and nourish us so that we can be strengthened for that transformation.
The work of being disciples is not easy. The work of being the faithful followers of God requires this radical transformation. It requires us to embrace and accept that all of these defilements that Jesus refers to in the final section. Maybe some of them haven’t been our particular experience and we aren’t guilty of all of them necessarily. Although when you understand them from, say, the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus takes these black and white categories and adds all of this grey complexity to them.
You know it’s not just about murder, but having murderous thoughts. It’s not just about committing adultery, but looking lustfully that bringing these into the reality of ordinary.
Everyday experiences of our frailty and foibles, but all of this is available to be transformed. All of this is available in the spirit of God and the power of Jesus love to bring this transformation, he wants to do what is necessary so that in our hearts we can be changed. In our hearts we can be transformed so that the desires and our intentions begin to flow naturally from within, from that encounter, from that place of transformation, from that place above all of being loved.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Saint Augustine and that change and transformation was so radical in his heart in his life: once he realised that it wasn’t just about making all of these attempts to understand the ways of God, but realizing that within us there is that God shaped hole. That our hearts are restless until they rest in God, that longing that he found too.
Find his ultimate satisfaction simply being loved by the father. Let’s do the same. Let’s allow God to do that work in us. Let’s stop all the fighting. All of the struggles. Let’s allow the God of the universe, the God of love, the God who longs for us to be made holy. To do that work in us, to transform us. And to change us to be for him, to be his bearers, to be his disciples, to be his lovers.