Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing (a sermon on Mark 7:1-23)

One of my favourite quotes from Stephen Covey is ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!’ It always pulls me up short, because I recognize that so many times in my life I’ve failed to do that. I’ve allowed myself to get distracted, and so I’ve ended up spending my time and energy on stuff that’s not really important.

In our Gospel for today Jesus is invited by the Pharisees to get involved in an argument about stuff that’s not really important. At least, that’s what Jesus thought of it, but of course, one of the things Christians often disagree about is how important our particular disagreements are! One person will say, “That’s a fairly minor thing, isn’t it?” and the other will be astonished and say, “Minor! What are you talking about? It’s fundamental!”

It’s amazing how many of the arguments in Christian congregations are about things that God apparently has no opinion about. Should we sing old hymns accompanied by organs, or rock songs accompanied by electric guitars? Should ministers lead services in robes, or in ordinary clothes? What’s the proper way to observe Lent, and is it possible that God might be offended if he hears the word ‘Alleluia’ during that season? And so it goes on. You hear of Christian congregations who are torn apart by arguments about what colour the new sanctuary carpet should be. I even heard of one church where the youth took the offering one day wearing ball caps, and when the smoke had cleared from that one, seven families had left the church.

So we should not be surprised, perhaps, that the issue the Pharisees presented to Jesus was about something that seems trivial to us: washing your hands. Let’s be clear that this wasn’t about hygiene; it was about religious ritual. Before a meal, according to tradition, a person should first of all pour water over their hands with the fingers pointing upwards, and then repeat the process with the fingers pointing down. It was a part of the proper ceremonial at the beginning of a meal, which of course including giving thanks to God, or ‘saying grace’ as we call it.

In the Old Testament, this sort of ritual washing was required only of priests, but in the years before the time of Jesus it had spread to lay people as well – something that God had not commanded – and practising Jews in Jesus’ day were very strict about it. As Mark tells us,

‘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’ (Mark 7:3-4).

So what these very religious Jews had done was to take a ritual custom for priests and make it an essential part of life for anyone who wanted to follow God’s ways. Now the Pharisees were applying this standard to Jesus and his disciples. “You tell us you’ve come to teach us about the Kingdom of God”, they were saying. “Well, surely the Kingdom of God is about obeying God as our King, and over the years our people have developed wise traditions about how to do that. So how come you aren’t following them? It looks as if you’re not speaking on behalf of God after all; you’re setting people a bad example and leading them astray!”

There are two things we need to notice about Jesus’ reply here. The first one is the distinction he makes between the commands of God and human traditions. Let me illustrate that for you by considering another Old Testament commandment: keeping the sabbath. In the Ten Commandments, number four says, ‘Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:8-10). The command of God is clear: one day in seven is to be kept free from labour so that the people could remember their dependence on God, and give thanks to him.

But of course, we all know how difficult it is to obey that command, and biblical people found it just as hard as we do. What exactly constituted work, they asked? If you cooked your supper, was that work? If you went for a walk on the sabbath, was that work, and if not, how far could you go from home before it was considered work? And how would you define your ‘home’? If you took a pile of your possessions on the day before the Sabbath and dumped them two miles down the road, could you reset the meter at that point and start again?

And so the conversations went on. The intention was good; teachers and scribes were genuinely trying to help people think through the question of how you applied the Law of God to the details of daily life. But gradually, in the minds of ordinary people, these traditions were elevated to the same status as God’s original commandments. And eventually, some people saw them as more important. In other words, they forgot that ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’!

It would be tempting – and deceptively easy – for us to say, “Well, the difference is that anything in the Bible is God’s commandment and anything outside is a tradition of men”. But there are a couple of problems with that answer. First, if you read the Old Testament carefully you can see evidence that the process of adding traditional interpretations to the original commandments is already present in the scriptures. In the Pentateuch, the first five books, laws are often restated two or three different times in different forms, and they don’t always agree with each other. For instance, laws given in the context of a journey through the desert often needed rethinking when the people were living a settled life in the Promised Land, and we can see evidence of that rethinking in the pages of the Pentateuch.

But an even greater problem is what Mark says in verse 19: ‘Thus Jesus declared all foods clean’. In the Old Testament, all foods were definitely not clean. The Book of Leviticus goes into great detail about the difference between clean and unclean animals; the most famous example of course is the pig, and we all know that to this day religious Jews will not eat pork or anything else that comes from pigs. But pigs are only one item on the list; there are many others, including camels, rock badgers, hares, eagles, vultures, ospreys, lobsters and other shellfish, and most winged insects. Leviticus says that eating these animals is an offence against God’s holiness; God calls us to be holy, but these animals are unclean, so we should avoid them.

But now, says Mark, Jesus ‘declared all foods clean’ – and this only a few sentences after he had condemned the Pharisees and scribes for ‘rejecting the commandment of God’! It’s clear to me that Jesus can’t possibly have seen the food laws in Leviticus as being ‘commandments of God’ on the same level as the Ten Commandments. So it’s not just a simple matter of saying “Stuff that’s in the Bible is God’s command, and later stuff is the tradition of men”. We have to go further than that, and identify what the core teachings of the Bible are. And we need to be honest and admit that it’s not always easy to do this, and Christians don’t always come to the same conclusions.

Jesus gives a particular example of how people in his day ‘rejected the commandment of God in order to keep their tradition’; it seems very obscure to us today, but apparently it was a live issue in his own time. The Fifth Commandment tells us to honour our father and mother, and obviously Jesus believed that this included the duty of looking after them when they are unable to look after themselves. However, there was apparently a way that children who wanted to avoid this responsibility could do so. They simply declared their wealth to be ‘Corban’, which means, ‘dedicated to God’. Once it was dedicated in this way it couldn’t be given to anyone else, even one’s parents. But obviously the people in Jesus’ time had contrived some legal formula by which they could still use it themselves, even though ostensibly it belonged to God. So in this way a human tradition – the ‘Corban’ idea – was being used as a way of wriggling out of one’s obligations under the clear commandment of God.

We’ve said that we need to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’. Jesus is telling us that this includes never allowing a human tradition, however hallowed it might be, to take precedence over a command of God. This is tough for us; any organisation that’s lasted for two thousand years, as the Christian church has done, is going to develop all kinds of traditions along the way, and some of them we particularly enjoy! Examples of that would include the cycle of the Christian Year – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter and Pentecost – and all the customs that have grown up about how we observe the various seasons and festivals. The scriptures have nothing to say about this, but most of us in the Anglican church enjoy it and find it helpful. Fasting during Lent, using an Advent wreath during Advent, using different coloured decorations in the different seasons and so on – these are all examples of the traditions that have evolved over the years.

And they’re fine in their place, as long as we ‘keep the main thing the main thing’! The purpose of these traditions is to help us lead the Gospel life – loving God and our neighbour, seeking first the Kingdom of God, avoiding greed and excessive wealth, caring for the poor and needy, loving our enemies and forgiving those who hate us, and so on. When our traditions help us do that, they are a blessing to us. But when they take on a life of their own – when they become ‘a thing’ in their own right – when they loom larger in our minds than spreading the gospel and caring for the poor – then they become a trap. And we need to be very careful about this.

But before we finish, I need to point out one other issue Jesus mentions in this reading: the issue of clean and unclean. It relates to the Pharisees’ original question: how come he and his disciples weren’t performing the hand washing rituals? How come, according to Jewish tradition, they were eating with ‘unclean’ hands?

To religious Jews, as I’ve said, this wasn’t just about hand washing; it extended to what you ate as well. The Old Testament has lists of foods that were considered ‘unclean’. It wasn’t just that they were unhygienic; there was something about them that made them unholy, so that a person who ate them had to go through elaborate cleansing rituals before they could go into the sanctuary to pray to God.

But this is not just about food; it’s much bigger than that. Judaism in the time of Jesus tended to see evil as something ‘out there’; religious people had to be careful to avoid it, or they might get infected. This even extended to human beings; you should stay away from sinners, because they might infect you. Sharing meals with prostitutes and tax collectors, as Jesus was doing, was a dangerous thing; bad company spoils good morals.

But Jesus had an entirely different attitude. Evil isn’t something that comes at me from ‘out there’; rather, evil comes from within. Look at verses 20-23:

And (Jesus) 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”.

In other words, evil is not out there – it’s in here. The problem isn’t that I’m being infected by poison from outside; the problem is that I’ve got a poisoned well inside me that needs to be made clean.

This is what Christianity means by the doctrine of ‘original sin’. That doctrine often gets a bum wrap today, and perhaps ‘original sin’ isn’t the best way to describe it. Some people think it means that the original sin was sex; other people think it means that God holds the entire human race to blame for the original sin of taking fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But what it actually means is that since the first human beings chose to disobey God, evil and sin have infected all of us. It’s like a DNA fault – our coding has been damaged, and we all find ourselves behaving in ways we’re ashamed of. It’s as if sin has become natural to us, and holiness is very, very hard.

So how is that damaged coding going to be fixed?

It is the universal testimony of Christians down through the centuries that will-power alone can’t change fix it. You know what I mean. You say to yourself “Right! I know what my problem is! I need to forget about changing others and start changing myself! So I’m going to make some resolutions and keep them, and make myself into a different person”. That’s where the problem starts. It’s much easier to make resolutions than to keep them!

Jesus gives us a list of evils here: ‘fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly’. But there’s another list, that Saint Paul gives us in his letter to the Galatians. He says, ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’ (v.16). A bit later on in the same chapter he says ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (vv.22-23).

I like this list a lot better! I think if we were all growing in these qualities, the world would be a very different place! But notice that Paul calls them ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. In other words, they aren’t just a result of turning over a new leaf or trying our best to be good; rather, they come as we pray each day for the Holy Spirit to fill us and help us to do what we can’t do by ourselves. It’s not that we do nothing, of course; it’s just that we don’t try to do it by ourselves. Transformation of character is something that we need God’s help with, and God is ready and willing to give us that help.

The other thing about ‘fruit’, of course, is that it doesn’t grow instantly. I can’t give you three infallible keys to holiness that will produce results by next Friday. Fruit takes time to grow and ripen, and it’s the same with the fruit of the Spirit. Transformation of character is the work of a lifetime; we’re never going to get done with it until we see God face to face.

I started out by saying that ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’. What is the main thing? Jesus taught that the main thing is the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom spreads one heart at a time, as human beings come to God in faith, and as they ask him to heal them of evil and sin and help them live lives of love and compassion, of mercy and justice.

The problem is not out there; rather, the problem is in me. Leo Tolstoy once said ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no-one thinks of changing himself’. Let us ask God to help us to change from the inside out, by a daily infilling of his Holy Spirit. Then instead of the world’s evil coming into us and polluting us, God’s goodness will spread out through us to change the world. And that, I’m quite sure, is ‘the main thing’.


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