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What Defiles Us & Defines Us?

Mark 7:1-23

David Collins

July 9, 2023

To get started today, I’ve got a really deep and serious question to ask you.

Is a hot dog a sandwich?

One reason a hot dog is a sandwich: It’s meat between two pieces of bread.

One reason a hot dog isn’t a sandwich: The bread is attached to itself. And you hold it sideways.

But…sometimes the bread on sub sandwiches is attached to itself, and no one would say that a sub sandwich isn’t a sandwich. And sometimes I’ll make a PB&J on one piece of bread and fold it, and that’s clearly still a sandwich.

Alright, raise your hand if you strongly believe that a hot dog IS a sandwich. Now, raise your hand if you STRONGLY believe that a hot dog is NOT a sandwich.

You know, some churches would split over this controversy. But I think we can handle it. Some pastors just can’t help but stir up trouble.

My favorite hot dog is at Costco. A dollar fifty for a hot dog the size of a baby’s arm, with a drink!

A few years ago, they used to sell Italian sausages, too. With peppers and onions. It was a little more, but it was worth it. Some folks would get a slice of pizza, and use that as the bun for the Italian sausage... And no one gawked at them either! Maybe a nod of respect. Just right out there in the open, in front of God and everyone, using a piece of pizza as a hot dog bun.

Now, that is not a sandwich. Is that even a dish? It’s more like a cry for help.

Can you imagine someone eating that in their cardiologist’s waiting room? Just wanting to give their doctor more to do? That would be like eating a box of Oreos before getting your teeth cleaned. Just getting my money’s worth.

You probably wouldn’t even eat that in front of your kids. But outside of Costco? Where we’re all in it together? Absolutely. One of my only regrets in life is that I never tried it. And now I’ll never get the chance. Sure, maybe I’ll live a little longer…But did I really live?

You know, I won’t let Megan come with me to Costco. I insist on going alone, because I don’t want her to lose respect for me. Because when I’m there, I abide by the social norms of Costco. I try every sample, sometimes two or three times. I’ve got to find the biggest rotisserie chicken, and if there’s only one left, I will fight you for it.

That’s not my choice. That’s just the rules of Costco.

Social norms define so much about us.

When we are in a crowd, we stop being individuals and become more like molecules in a fluid. It affects our behavior, and it strongly affects our moral judgement.

We tend to have one set of standards that we use to judge our own group, and another set for judging everyone else.

Just go to a football game and you’ll see. It’s crazy how when the other team breaks a rule, we are like the most observant, fundamentalist, hellfire and brimstone preachers in history. "HE HAS SINNED!!! I have seen it with mine eyes and so has the whole congrega-shun!"

But when our team does the same thing, suddenly we’re Post-Modernist Philosophers. “I mean, how can we really know anything at all. At the end of the day, it’s all just interpretation. We’re all just trying to do our best, right?”

A lot of people are the same way with their families. "What do you mean Grandpa’s a racist? No… that’s just the way he’s always been! Oh, he’s always been a racist? Well, he was always nice to me. And he’s not going to change now"… Or we say, “There’s no way that my son did that! And if he did, your son probably deserved it.”

We do it at work, too. After all, we have a financial incentive to do it there. Whistleblowers are very rare, and not well liked… until they get on the news, and even then, it’s a grudging smile.

And the worst offender has got to be politics.

Since, all that matters is getting to 50.1% in an election, does it really matter how we get there? So we excuse other people’s behavior within our group because the other side is worse. All that matters is the letter next to your name.

If election campaigning ever stopped, it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. I’d be like, ‘Big deal, every other year we go a little nuts for a few months.” But it just never quits!

All that seems to matter is our group identity.

Which is what today’s Markan Sandwich is all about. And as a sandwich goes, it is a little more like a hot dog. It’s not a clean and obvious sandwich like we’ve had before. It’s a controversy teaching in Mark that centers around group identity and how it affects our moral reasoning. So let’s read it together.

It starts out like this:

Mark 7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, (Jesus)

We’ve heard from these guys before. That Mark mentions they come from Jerusalem is a tell that they are here to do whatever they can to try and hurt Jesus. For Mark, the city of Jerusalem is synonymous with Jesus’ crucifixion and death. So trouble is coming.

2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.

And now Mark is going to explain what that means, because as Megan taught last week, his community was not familiar with Jewish customs. The NRSV is kind enough to put Mark’s explanation in parentheses.

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.)

Now, keep in mind that they weren’t washing these things with soap. It wasn’t a scientific principle, but a religious tradition. Please don’t anyone hear in what’s to come that Jesus is anti-hand washing. Please wash your hands.

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?’

Notice here that they refer to this practice as a tradition of the elders, and not a law of God, because it wasn’t. In the Hebrew Bible, the only people commanded to wash their hands in this ceremonial fashion, were the priests. But somewhere along the way, it had become a tradition for all of the Pharisees, and all the Jews who wanted to show themselves as holy and set apart, to do the same. Maybe it started out as a way to show that they were as important as the priests, like our doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which actually IS based on scripture.

But nowhere is this a command for all the people, but because of the pressure of group identity, it had now become a social norm, a quick and easy way to see who was in and who was out. Who was a part of us, and who was a part of them.

The reason this is a sandwich, is that if you skip all the way down to verse 15, Jesus answers their question very succinctly. They asked “Why do your disciples eat with defiled hands?” And He answers,

15 There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

Note that Jesus is talking about food here. Because there are lots of things from “outside” us that can defile us. Particularly, the groups that we identify with, and get caught up in. There are political and social ideologies that absolutely come from the outside, that tend to stick and will eventually corrupt the heart.

This is something that is really important to me to keep in mind as the father of young men. There are powerful forces that want to recruit my boys to their cause. Thankfully, my sons aren’t disaffected and angry, but plenty of them are. And once certain algorithms, which sounds like such a crack-pot thing to be saying up here…THE ALGORITHM WANTS OUR CHILDREN! …but once certain algorithms know that angry rants about social change get your kids’ attention, pretty soon they will be showing them angrier, and more hateful ones, and slowly but surely…they will be defiled.

Just not by food, which was Jesus’s point here. But he hasn’t gotten there yet. With the Pharisees and scribes, first, he’s going to hit them upside the head with the meat of this sandwich.

Sometimes Jesus has just run all out of patience to give. This is one of those times.

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.’

Now in the next verse, notice the sarcastic tone of voice.

9 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!

But it’s not the hand washing that he has a problem with. It’s something much worse.

10 For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’

Corban was a practice of willing assets to the Temple… which reminds me… our finance committee would very much like for you to include the church in your will! What they’re requesting is a bequest, and not Corban. Corban was a practice of declaring something as dedicated to the Temple, so that it couldn’t be spent on anything else, like providing for your parents, or other family members needs in their old age or distress.

Scholars don’t agree on whether you could take the Corban back or not. Was it just a way to dodge your responsibilities, or was it an unbreakable vow? They don’t agree. But I don’t think Jesus would have liked it either way.

This practice, Jesus tells them, violates the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), as it enabled the denial of support to parents who were in need. The scribes and Pharisees were allowing people to circumvent the moral and legal imperative to care for their parents, AND they probably felt morally superior about it! They’re were getting tendinitis from patting themselves on the back! After all, what’s more important than the Temple?

Well, Jesus says, LOT OF THINGS!

But that’s how groups work, isn’t it? Something gets declared as the ultimate good, the ultimate goal, and pretty soon, there is no questioning it. Unless you want to get thrown out of the group, that is.

There are these little markers, these little traditions, that everyone you know seems to agree about. So people who don’t agree about them start to seem weird, and pretty soon they start to feel like the enemy.

Groups create their own rules and customs. They might involve something innocuous, like the Pharisees, washing themselves like they’re priests even though they weren’t..some ancient larping or cosplay seemed fine on the outside. Same with Corban. What a noble goal! Who can argue with donating money to the Temple? It looks good on the outside! But Jesus saw that the motivations for both weren’t nearly as noble as they looked.

It was about group identity. Social norms. And both inevitably lead to sickly, sinful, sneering…arrogance. Arrogance makes us believe that our group identity is all that matters. So long as we’re not THEM, we’re fine.

But Jesus says that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between groups. It runs within each human heart. The outer forms, the shared goals, all these things that set us apart from others aren’t just meaningless…they’re dangerous for our hearts. They trick us into a false sense of security.

The Pharisees thought they were okay because of what they ate, and how they washed their food. But that was just not true. And it still isn’t.

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.’

This is not a shocking statement for us, since we grew up in the faith, and even if we didn’t, we grew up in a world shaped by Christianity. But the idea that food couldn’t defile you ran so counter to the worldview in ancient Israel, the disciples thought Jesus was speaking in parables.

17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable.

It wasn’t a parable! He was speaking as plainly and clearly as he could.

18 He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’

It’s kind of funny that Jesus talks about going to the bathroom, isn’t it? You don’t think about Jesus doing that, but he did. And used it as a sermon illustration! It’s more than just an anatomical lesson though. For Jesus, and pretty much everyone 2000 years ago, the heart wasn’t just for pumping blood. It was the seat of emotions, and logic, and morality. So if food didn’t pass through it, how could it possibly contaminate you?

(Thus he declared all foods clean.)

That’s Mark again with the clarification for all the Gentiles in the building.

20 And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles.

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come:

The food you eat cannot defile you. The team you root for, on the field or at the polls, does not define you. Your religion does not give you status. Your family, your job, your neighborhood, none of these things define you.

It’s funny because without all of those things, how would you ever describe yourself? The groups you belong to, the relationships that give you an identity, and the practices that go along with them…none of these things are as important as the actions that come from your heart. And since the Pharisees brought up the subject of what defiles you, Jesus has to point out that what truly defiles you, is your sin.

You might overlook your own sin because you believe your intentions were good. And your friends and family will most likely help you justify anything you’ve done, because you’re a part of their group, and they’ll want you to do the same for them when it’s their turn.

But Jesus says that no group identity, no religious affiliation, no noble goal is an excuse for sin. He says that each of us is responsible for our own actions. Each of us accountable for what we do. Jesus says that these sins begin in the heart (we would say the mind) as evil thoughts, evil intentions in our translation. But then they become actions. Like:

fornication, turning sex into a selfish transaction, using each other for meaningless gratification,

theft, taking what rightfully belongs to someone else. It could be legal or illegal. That doesn’t matter as much as the fact that someone else is its rightful owner.

murder, treating human life as expendable and meaningless

22 adultery, breaking the vows of marriage

avarice, desiring and dreaming of more money than you need

wickedness, malice towards your fellow human beings, wanting bad things to happen to them

deceit, being willing to win by any means necessary

licentiousness, living purely for pleasure

envy, literally, having evil eyes, being led around by your eyes, wanting whatever they see

slander, putting others down to lift yourself up

pride, being so certain that you’re best that no one else should even try…and

folly. Senselessness, recklessness, thinking and acting like nothing really matters.

23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ That’s what defiles.

We all have a natural inclination towards selfishness, towards arrogance, to thinking that what we want is the only thing that matters, and once those thoughts turn into actions, they are what defile us.

But what defines us?

In the end, are we defined by what groups we identify with? By the social norms we adhere to?

Like the Pharisees and scribes, are we defined by being a part of the RIGHT group, which seems to mostly consist in pointing out who’s wrong?

Is Jesus saying that if we get rid of all those selfish thoughts that turn into selfish sins, that whatever is left is who we really are?

Is there some nucleus in each of us…some perfect, undefiled center? If so, is that who we really are?

I don’t know. I don’t think anyone really does.

What I do know is that the me you can see, and the you I can see, is malleable. We are shaped by other people…by the groups we identify with…by the social norms we adhere to…by our histories and traumas. If you listen to, and agree with, the wrong kind of people for long enough, you might start to disappear, and be replaced by the things Jesus lists in our scripture today.

But you are never ultimately defiled because of these things that came into your life from the outside. You are never too far gone. Jesus says that defilement only comes from your own heart, which means it can stop there too. It can be replaced by good things, by good thoughts that turn into good actions.

God can help you with that, if you ask him to. God can transform your heart, and help you see how the groups you identify with have shaped you into someone you no longer want to be. God will change your heart, so that you can change your actions.

That is true for every person on earth right now.

That’s one way that we can love like Jesus. We can love people the way that Jesus loved the Pharisees and the scribes. That’s what he was doing when he called them hypocrites, and called them out on their practice of Corban. Telling the truth is an act of love.

It’s much easier for us to love like Jesus in that way…when it comes to groups we don’t belong to. We’re great at that. But we could get better, more precise. What if when we called people out for the actions of their group, we also held out hope that they could leave that group and redefine their lives? What if we invited them to a new group? Maybe, to ours?

Now let me end this sermon with a much more difficult question.

What would Jesus say to the groups you identify with? If you can forget about them, what is Jesus saying to you?


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