Sunday, September 2, 2012

Proper 17 B - Sep 2, 2012

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
Proper 17 B – Sunday, September 2, 2012

A little cairn in the monastery meadow - a place to stop and ponder
Picture by
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Does my heart, and your heart, direct me to right action most of the time?  What intentions drive my actions?  Does God's bidding, God's commandments, God's desire come into it?

Do I stop long enough to question myself in this way?  Or do I let ingrained habits, long-held customs, hallowed traditions take precedence in how I live?

Does my community have habits, customs and traditions such as those?  Do we often enough question whether they are still serving God?  Or are some of our customs serving an idolatrous conservatism that is leaking its last bit of meaning though it suits us well?

Today's gospel addresses questions such as these.


Mark the Evangelist commits to writing “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” around the year 70 of the current era.  He writes the gospel mostly for non-Jews, gentiles of the Roman Empire.  His community is probably in what was then known as Syria (a larger and less defined region than the current ailing state).

Mark's gospel was written to include Romanized non-Jews into the body of believers.  It is written at a time when Christians -- as they are coming to be newly called -- are increasingly separating from the Synagogues.

Indeed Christians are more often than not seen by their Jewish brethren as too different.  They do not conform enough to the traditional Jewish codes of conduct.  They seem to threaten the integrity of Judaism.


In this context, Mark remembers incidents of Jesus' life that support the importance of right relationship to tradition.  He recounts Jesus questioning the validity of human codes of conduct.  These codes, which human society evolved from tradition over time, sometimes end up stifling the spirit of the tradition they stem from.


So, in today's passage, the Pharisees and some of the scribes reproach Jesus for letting some of his followers eat with defiled hands.

Now defilement is originally meant to describe the situation of priests and levites who temporarily become invalid for the performance of rites.  For instance, by coming into contact with human blood or a dead body.

That is, what is going on in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Priest and the Levite, on their way to serve in the temple, both take a broad sway past the left-for-dead Judean bleeding by the wayside.  They'd rather serve God in the temple than come to the help of their fellow man and defile themselves.


The Pharisees pick a fight with Jesus about an extended notion of defilement.  One that includes all Jews as ministers of religious rituals; in this case, the sharing of a meal.

The few disciples who are eating with unwashed hands show a behavior that does not comply with the purity code, the so-called “tradition of the elders.”


In a sweeping statement, Mark ascribes those purity behaviors to “ the Pharisees, and all the Jews.”  In fact, the “tradition of the elders” as Mark calls it was a development within the Pharisaic movement of Judaism.

When they were in exile, the Jews could no longer worship in the temple at Jerusalem.  The Pharisees then surmised that in the absence of the temple, each Jew had to act as holy as the temple priests;  and that the meals of a Jewish household were to be attended to with the same care given to the altar in the temple.

However, that level of expected sanctity left large swathes of the Jewish population out.  For most Jews, their location, their level of wealth or their profession would have made them unable to follow the fullness of the “tradition of the elders”.

Travelers such as Jesus' disciples, for example, could not have been expected to have access to ritual bathing.  Fishermen would constantly have been defiled by their coming into contact with dead animals.

In actual fact, the “tradition of the elders,” became a great way to determine who was out and who was in on being holy, or a Pharisee, for that matter.

It started from the Mosaic laws, of course.  But it elaborated many demands that, at face value, kept the laws, but in fact corrupted their spirit.  One had to be a fairly well-off urban dweller to be able to keep up with the “tradition of the elders.”


Jesus does not reject the Mosaic laws on which the Pharisees developed their purity code, but he emphasizes their intent and how it should drive right action rather than legalistic observances.

In fact, Jesus refers in an indirect way to the ten commandments when he lists the evil intentions that come from the heart.  Go back to the list and you can track them back to five of the ten commandments.

It was taboo to say the ten commandments as they had been given to Moses.  But it was fine to say them in another way and/or in another sequence.  In this way, Jesus shows deference to some tradition, especially if it goes back to the foundations of the Jewish faith.


So, where does that leave you and I today, you may ask?  Are we concerned by this gospel passage?  I venture we are, and in a big way.

Do we ever use legalistic or literalistic arguments to justify why our way is right and others' is wrong?

Do we ever refer to noble moral principles to justify non-assistance to those who need our help?

Do we ever keep ourselves busy with visible piety or ostentatious liturgy?  Does it come to a point where there is no space nor time left to welcome the inappropriately dressed newcomer or help the homeless hanging by the door into the sharing of coffee hour?

Do we keep our beliefs and values in the closet when they are not getting their weekly Sunday morning airing at church?


What are our evil intentions of the heart?  How do we become aware of them, especially in their subtler expressions? How do we turn our heart around to God's desire?  How does that translate in actions that express God's care for the world?


These are questions I ask myself as a monk.   How does my life, my daily actions express God's love for the world?  Are my best intentions only in my head while the evil intentions reside cozily in my heart and run it?  How do I reverse that order and let my evil intentions chill out and shrink in the coolness of my intellect?


Today's passage offers no pat solution, but it insists that we put God's desire first, and test human traditions in that way, no matter how good public opinion has them to be.


Listen carefully, the song of songs invites us to more fully entrust our heart, body and soul to God.
The voice of my beloved!
Look he comes,
Leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
Shall I let his gaze meet mine?
And will I leap at its invitation?

To be continued... in each of our lives.

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