14th Sunday after Trinity
2nd September 2018 - Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 and James 1:17-27
I wonder what, if any, memories you have of being very embarrassed at school. Like
a mental scar, for me, it was when I was about 8 years old. I had been given
permission by the teacher, Ms Barker, to go to the toilet and it was when I came back
that she called me up to the front of the class. All eyes were on me of course.
She asked me if I had washed my hands. “Yes, Ms Barker”, I said. She then felt my
hands and asked me again if I had washed them. “Yes, Ms Barker”, I said, trying to
convince her that I really had. “Stephen Dent”, she said; I was always Stephen when
I’d done something wrong. “Do you want to go and see the headmaster?”. “No Ms
Barker”, I replied. I will ask you one more time. Did you wash your hands? “No Ms
Barker”. This was not because I hadn’t, I had, well the fingers anyway, but because I
didn’t want to go and see the headmaster, as I didn’t know what would happen. I
guessed that whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be pleasant. I was then got told the
importance of washing hands properly and sent back to the toilets. This time I made
sure that they were wet all over, so that there could be no argument.
Of course, now, I, like you, understand that hand washing is important to stop the
spread of infection and disease. But in Jesus time, it was a different story. And we
heard in our gospel reading that Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees because
some of his disciples were not washing their hands before they ate. It’s just as if they
had travelled all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to check whether Jesus disciples
were washing their hands, a distance of over 110 miles, which at that time was a
considerable undertaking. We’re not told what their actual motivation was for doing
so. It was certainly not the spread of infection and disease that they wanted to stop
but almost certainly the spread of Jesus popularity and the threat that they
considered he posed to their authority. Many people were following him, rather than
Mark, the writer of the gospel, had already told us in a previous chapter that 5,000
men had come to see Jesus, probably after hearing about some of the healings that
he had done. By the time that you included their wives and children, there were
probably over 12,000 people present at what became known as the feeding of the
five thousand. I wonder how many of them washed their hands first? Hand washing,
as well as many of the other rituals that were proscribed at the time, were customs
and traditions that had been passed down from one generation to the next rather than
a requirement from God, as passed on in scripture. The Pharisees had derived it from
the purity laws that the Jewish priests were required to follow. They were expected to
wash their hands before entering the holy place in the temple or offering a sacrifice.
But the Pharisees decided that the law should apply to all God’s people and all
aspects of life and it became part of their tradition, a ritual, that all Jews should wash
their hands before meals as a way of making the mealtime sacred.
In itself, not a bad thing, you might think. But Jesus challenged them on this. “You
abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition”, he said. He called
them hypocrites. Hypocrite was the term used in classical Greek to describe actors
on a stage. They became someone else, because their true persona was hidden
behind a mask and a charade. Acting out a part.
He quoted Isaiah’s prophetic words to them written over 500 years earlier. “The
people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they
worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
It wasn’t that hand washing in itself was a bad thing but that it had become something
of a meaningless ritual done for the sake of ticking the box, you might say, rather
than as an act of worship to God.
I wonder what rituals we have today where we do the same thing? Are we at times
just acting out a part? Our church services are full of ritual of course. We ritually say
and do many of the same things each week. And that in itself is not a bad thing. But
are we guilty of saying or doing them without giving them any thought? Are they just
empty words, phrases or actions that are not from the heart? Have they become a
I don’t know about you but I, for example, have certainly been guilty of saying the
Lord’s Prayer without really thinking about it. We say words like ‘Your kingdom come’
Do we mean it? Do we want to see God’s kingdom rule here? ‘Your will be done.’ Do
we mean that? Are we really seeking to know Gods will for our lives and ready and
willing to do it, whatever is required? ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin
against us?’ How about that one? That’s a tough one, isn’t it?
“The people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”
Ritual is about religion. Like me with hand washing as a child, religiously doing
something because we believe that it is the right thing to do, without necessarily
really thinking about it.
Jesus went on to explain in our Gospel reading that when it comes to God, it’s not
about the cleanliness of our hands but the cleanliness of our hearts that matters. And
it’s not so much about performing religious rituals as about relationship. God wants to
transform us from the inside out, not the outside in. And that starts when we come
into relationship with the living Lord, Jesus Christ who was resurrected and ascended
to be with his Father.
God wants us to invite Jesus into our hearts and our lives and to put our faith and
trust in him. And when we do, it is no longer just ritualistic words but an ongoing
conversation. And then, it is not so much about what we do as much as it is about
what God has already done in and through the person of Jesus.
Our lives should be lived out in response to what God has already done and wants to
do in and through us. Then, as James said in our first reading, we no longer become
mere hearers of the word (or speakers of the word) but doers of the word; living out
our faith and helping to transform the world around us, in Jesus name.