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Religion is Other People

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Pharisees and some legal experts from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. 2 They saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands. (They were eating without first ritually purifying their hands through washing. 3 The Pharisees and all the Jews don’t eat without first washing their hands carefully. This is a way of observing the rules handed down by the elders. 4 Upon returning from the marketplace, they don’t eat without first immersing themselves. They observe many other rules that have been handed down, such as the washing of cups, jugs, pans, and sleeping mats.) 5 So the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?”

6 He replied, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote,

This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. 7 Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words.[a]

8 You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.”

14 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.”

21 “It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come: sexual sins, thefts, murders, 22 adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from the inside and contaminate a person in God’s sight.”

Religion can be creative but also destructive. It can make us generous and compassionate or intolerant and close-minded. It can be a source of inner peace or nudge us into waging wars. History teaches us that our pursuit of God is riddled with surprising outcomes.

In today's reading, the issue is the failure of Jesus' disciples to keep up with their tradition. In this instance, to perform ritual washings before eating. For the scribes and Pharisees, the disciples are not "walking" according to the tradition of the elders. They raise an important question regarding the very essence of religious piety.

Jesus' response is simple: religion is not about a list of do's and don'ts. Religion is other people. This reminds me of a parable.

There was once a small town filled with believers who always sought to act in obedience to the teachings of God. When faced with difficult situations the leaders of the community would often be found deep in prayer, or searching the Scriptures, for guidance and wisdom. Late one evening, in the middle of winter, a young man from the neighbouring city arrived at the gates of the town’s church seeking refuge. The caretaker, a man of deep faith, immediately let him in and, seeing that he was hungry and cold, provided a warm meal and some fresh clothes.

After he had rested the young man explained how he had fled the city because the authorities had labelled him a political dissident. It turned out that the man had been critical of both the government and the church in his work as a journalist. The caretaker brought the young man back to his home and allowed him to stay until a plan had been worked out concerning what to do next.

When the priest was informed of what had happened, he called the leaders of the town together in order to work out what ought to be done. After two days of discussion it was agreed that the man should be handed over to the authorities in order to face up to the crimes he had committed. But the caretaker protested, saying, “This man has committed no crimes, he has merely criticized what he believes to be the injustices perpetrated by authorities in the name of God.”

“What you say may be true,” replied the priest, “but his presence puts the whole of this town in danger, for what if the authorities find out where he is and learn that we have protected him?”

But the caretaker refused to hand him over to the priest, saying, “He is my guest, and while he is under my roof I will ensure that no harm comes to him. If you take him from me by force, then I will publicly attest to having helped him and suffer the same injustice as my guest.”

The caretaker was well loved by the people, and the priest had no intention of letting something happen to him. So the leaders went away again and this time searched the Scriptures for an answer, for they knew that the caretaker was a man of deep faith. After a whole night of poring over the Scriptures, the leaders came back to the caretaker saying, “We have read the sacred book all through the night seeking guidance and have found that it tells us that we must respect the authorities of this land and witness to the truth of faith through submission to them.”

But the caretaker also knew the sacred words of Scripture and told them that the Bible also asked that we care for those who suffer and are persecuted.

So there and then, in desperation the leaders began to pray fervently. They beseeched God to speak to them, not as a still, small voice in their conscience, but rather in the way that God had spoken to Abraham and Moses. They begged God to communicate directly to them so that the caretaker would see the error of his ways. Sure enough, the sky began to darken, and God descended from heaven, saying, “The priest and elders speak the truth, my friend. In order to protect the town this man must be handed over to the authorities.”

But the caretaker, a man of deep faith, looked up to heaven and replied, “If you want me to remain faithful to you, my God, then I can do nothing but refuse your advice. For I do not need the Scriptures or your words to tell me what I ought to do. You have already demanded that I look after this man. You have already written that I must protect him at all costs. Your words of love have been spelled out by the lines of this man’s face, your text is found in the texture of his flesh. So, my God, I defy you precisely in order to remain faithful to you.”

With this, God turned to the town’s leaders and addressed them directly: “If I cannot convince him, then neither will you. Now leave him in peace.” Then God quietly withdrew, knowing that the matter had finally been settled.

Indeed, the minute we take the consideration of real human beings out of our daily lives, there is no room for God who thrives on the currency of relationship. This God calls us into a deeper understanding of our history, faith and tradition – one where those around us matter more than rules and regulations.

Because religion is other people. Christianity is other people.

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