Thursday, August 27th Mark 7:14-15

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Mark 7:14-15

I’m having trouble with these verses this morning.

Their meaning is pretty obvious – Jesus is drawing a sharp distinction between what truly makes someone ceremonially unclean (the technical meaning of the Greek word translated “defile.”) It isn’t what lies outside of us that makes us unclean (casual contact with Gentiles or other ceremonially unclean people in the marketplace, therefore requiring ritual washing before we eat) but what is already inside of us that we carried with us into the marketplace in the first place.

But what do we do with this insight? That’s the problem.

When I was a kid, the Christian faith was all about “thou shalt not’s.” If talk of Christianity came up at all it was usually in the context of explaining why someone shouldn’t lie, swear, drink, smoke, use drugs, listen to rock and roll music or chase girls. Good Christians, in other words, didn’t do those things. They were bad. They would corrupt you. They would ruin your life.

Along the way, I did them all. Thus, according to those rules, I was unclean. Dirty. Corrupt. I also stayed away from church and pretended my way through my occasional visits.

So at first glance, especially again in the context of going after the Pharisees, Jesus seems to be opening the door to all of the things that were so fascinating to a young boy and still troubling to a middle aged man. But that doesn’t sound right nor does it feel right. Something else is going on here.

When I preach at the prison where I volunteer as a chaplain I invariably run into “holiness people.” I know there is a bit of irony in that but it is true. In my normal life I spend most of my time with Christians you might call “all things in moderation” sort of people. But the holiness people aren’t like that – they watch me like a hawk when I preach. They come up to me after worship and point out verses that I didn’t quote perfectly, or tell me about edgy words that I used that might have “opened the door for the devil’s toe hold.”

At first those folks kind of freaked me out. I came to dread in particular one guy who would catch me stumbling every time. He has a lot more time to study the Bible than I do and he would always yank out a verse or two to “correct” me. Mostly, he was right.

But then I began to notice something. It was obvious that the holiness crowd sat in the front of the room while the guys who just showed up in chapel to “do business” sat in the back. But what I learned over time was that their separation wasn’t limited just to chapel – that separation continued throughout the week. The “clean” sat in the front. The “dirty” sat in the back.

So one night I challenged those in the front to sit in the back the next week. They still haven’t taken me up on it…and I get far fewer Bible verses quoted to me after the sermon.

And that, I think, is the key to these verses. They aren’t about moral purity (not that there is anything wrong with that) but about the corrosive effects on human community of separatist religiosity that reduces the world to insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean.

The bottom line is that Jesus didn’t just show up for the good people but for all people. And my personal sense is that he would have hung with the guys in the back of the room.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, help us to discern what is good and right and helpful in how we live our lives in community with others. Help us find our way. Forgive us for judging ourselves or others with the wrong measuring stick. Keep us mindful of that which we so often simply do not see. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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