“Who Are You?”
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 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.)
5 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?”
6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (NRSV)
Jesus has crossed the sea and gone to Gennesaret—again. To hang out with Gentiles—again. Some Pharisees and scribes show up to try to catch Jesus failing to live as a good Jew—again.
This time the Jewish leaders take offense at Jesus’ disciples eating with “defiled hands.” Now understand, they’re not worried about those hands being “dirty” in any literal sense. The Pharisees and scribes watch as self-affirming, practicing Jews press the flesh with Gentiles, and then sit down to eat with them. This offends the purists.
Eating is more than a mere necessity. As a revelatory, community event, table fellowship is deep-fried in the oil of holiness because in it, human beings profess their grateful and absolute dependence on God’s gracious provision. Remember, we don’t control the mystery that makes the earth grow the beans. All we do is plant the seeds and bake the casserole. In ways more obvious than circumcision, kosher food laws distinguish God’s people and remind them that they are a unique reminder of God in and for the world.
When we hear the Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus why his disciples so blatantly flout Jewish custom, we can rephrase their question in three words: Who are you?
It’s a matter of identity.
Did you ever have a parent or grandparent tell you, as you left the house, “Remember who you are!”? Now, that admonition often gets salted with guilt, especially when the one offering it fears embarrassment. When fearfully spoken, it tends to do more harm than good. Indeed, it becomes a kind of defilement. However, when it flows from a place of love and belonging, it reminds us that who we are is not a matter of laws and guilt, but of community, gratitude, and grace.
In one respect, our state of being at any given time, with all our flaws and foibles, is “who we are.” But the Gospel declares this to be an incomplete truth. It’s incomplete because who we are cannot be separated from who we are becoming. So Paul writes to the church at Corinth: “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)
That new creation is always in process. Who we truly are is who we arebecoming in Christ.
Now, the Pharisees deserve some credit. They serve as recipients and stewards of a tradition that aims to help God’s people maintain a distinctive identity in worldly cultures that can be both terribly threatening and wildly seductive. If that identity fades, Israel cannot fulfill her God-given purpose of serving as a reminder of holiness and a source of blessing.
The Pharisees’ question comes from a place of deep commitment. Who they are as Jews is tied closely to what they do. Jesus understands this, a he doesn’t disagree. And trying to love them from stuck to unstuck, he turns the question back at them. He seeks to deepen and broaden their already significant commitment.
Well, just who are you? he says. You’re like a bunch of actors who are stuck in a script of your own creation. And your script has lost its story line.
This is God’s script! And God’s script is a story, an ongoing journey. And neither God’s story nor our participation in it can be bound by any static tradition.
Jesus challenges the Pharisees to face the ways in which they’ve become hemmed in by Law—hemmed in so tight, in fact, that who they are is little more than the fear they feel at any given moment.
You’ve given up on Exodus, says Jesus. You’re mired at Sinai. You’ve stopped becoming the dynamic people and storied community that God calls and empowers you to become.
Then, cutting to the chase, Jesus says, It’s not what you fence out that makes you who you are. It’s the outpouring of faithfulness or foulness from within that makes the difference.
Jesus is saying that we reveal who we are and who we are becoming through the love we express for family, neighbor, enemy, and earth. What matters, what counts is how we celebrate their joys and weep at their pain.
As followers of Jesus, you and I are not the rules we keep or the dogma we proclaim. We are the organic faith, hope, and love we enjoy and share.
“The world” doesn’t care for real Jesus-followers. They’re dangerous, subversive. They don’t just pray; they embody prayer. They don’t just sing songs; they inspire them. They don’t just talk about justice; they do justice.
“The world” seems to be okay with church folk, though. It’s okay with folks who abide by rules and protect hierarchies and impose such things by force of fear. “The world” is okay with folks who give to charity without asking why the inequities and poverty even exist. And “the world” seems to love it when church folk make religion and nationalism synonymous.
It is to the church folk in each of us that Jesus refers when he quotes Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
When we open to the Christ within and among us, we set out on a path of becoming rather than remaining in the stagnant is-ness of who we think we are. And “the world” may try to discredit or even silence us, because Jesus threatens its comfortable status quo.
When we open to the Christ within and among us, there arises, from our becoming hearts, the identity-declaring, kingdom-revealing grace of God. And out of that heart there arises courage to live and speak God’s eternal and transforming truth in a world in which truth is mangled into whatever idea supports one’s own prejudices and soothes one’s own fears.
We know some of the names of people who looked the beast in the eye and spoke enduring truth: St. Francis of Assisi, Frederick Douglass, Elie Wiesel, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai.
Rather than recounting one of these familiar stories, this morning I share with you a prayer by Ted Loder, a United Methodist pastor and preacher. As you hear this prayer, examine your own life, and imagine the ways that God is calling you to become more fully who you are as a human being rooted and grounded in the love of Christ.
And remember, God is not through with you.
You are still becoming.
“Go with Me in a New Exodus”
O God of fire and freedom,
deliver me from my bondage
to what can be counted
and go with me in a new exodus
toward what counts,
but can only be measured
in bread shared
and swords become plowshares;
in bodies healed
and minds liberated;
in songs sung
and justice done;
in laughter in the night
and joy in the morning;
in love through all seasons
and great gladness of heart;
in all people coming together
and a kingdom coming in glory;
in your name being praised
and my becoming an alleluia,
through Jesus the Christ.1
1Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Augsburg Books, Minneapolis, 1981. p. 117.