A Sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (29/08/21): You Can’t Catch Sin

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

Jesus says:
It is what comes out of a person that defiles.

To begin with hand washing seems like an odd thing to get into a dispute over. But it does looks like the disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees, and it is a very forceful disagreement indeed, it looks like the disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees comes down to the issue of hand washing. The Pharisees see that the disciples don’t wash their hands, in the prescribed manner, before they eat. The Pharisees therefore conclude that the disciples do no follow the tradition of the elders That is, the are not obedient to the body of Biblical interpretation that has been handed down from generation to generation, the collection of everything that makes God’s people God’s people, which is sometimes called the “oral Torah.” So, the Pharisees conclude that if Jesus’ disciples are not following the tradition of the elders they are either ignorant of it, or have been taught to ignore it. So, they further conclude that their master, Jesus, isn’t teaching them what he should. And, because of that, he has stepped outside of the tradition of the elders and has ceased to be a valid teacher among the people of God. They arrive at all of this from what looks like a relatively minor infraction of a fairly obscure regulation in the law of Moses! How could this debate, a debate over a small aspect of Biblical interpretation in an ancient tradition, how could this debate have any bearing on us?

We may think hand-washing is a relatively trivial issue. But it turns out hand washing is a rather good way of illustrating how we think about sin and holiness and the effects that such thinking might have. Sin and holiness are the ways in which we speak of our relationship with God. Sin is everything that has the power to separate us from God. And holiness are the ways in which we become more like God as we have a deeper, stronger relationship with God, as we draw closer to God.

For us hand washing is a practical issue. But an important one, and one which over the last few months has become startlingly more pressing. Hand-hygiene is much more to forefront of out thinking that it once was, because hand-hygiene is critical in the prevention of the spread of infection. Time was that it was only when you onto a ward in hospital that you would find on the wall near every door little dispensers of hand sanitiser and large notices urging visitors and staff to make use of them, so that infection is not carried, by hand, from one ward to another in the hospital, or from the hospital to world at large. Now of course this is more than a daily experience, hand-sanitising has become part of what we must do every time we enter a space where other people might be gathering. And just as the Pharisees we scrupulous about the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles, so we have become scrupulous about the cleaning of any surface that anyone might have touched. For us that seems an entirely practical matter, about preventing the spread of Covid. But that, essentially, is the Pharisees’ view of sin. Defilement, alienation from God, can in their view, literally be passed like an infection from one hand to another. This is why they are so concerned about the disciples failure to follow the tradition of the elders when it comes to hand-washing. The Pharisees believed they could not have contact with the disciples, because to do so would be to risk contamination. They feared they would become infected with a defilement that would separate them from God. Holiness, their relationship with God, is something that could be lost, spoiled, by contact with the infection of sin. It isn’t just hand washing of course. Everything, the whole law of God works like that in the Pharisees’ mind. Hand washing is just something they can see. But if the disciples failed to wash their hands what else might they fail to do? There could be almost endless possibilities for the ways in which the disciples, in the Pharisees’ minds, might be defiled, alienated from God. And this is defilement, and alienation, sin, that they might pass onto the Pharisees and any other right thinking member of the community. The disciples therefore could not be part of that community. They needed to be quarantined, in exactly the same way, and for exactly the same reasons, as lepers were
Again months of lockdowns and self-isolations have given us insight into the way of thinking and the pattern of life envisaged by the Pharisees and their attitude to sin. The society, the religious community, which is built on this view of sin and holiness is necessarily an exclusive one!

And it is not just the Pharisees who hold attitudes like this and build communities like that. There have been and are no shortage of churches who have operated in exactly that way, Methodism in some places and at some times included! They have reckoned that in order to maintain their relationship with God: They must avoid the contamination, the infection of sin that exist in the world around them. They have become withdrawn. And having become withdrawn, they have often become exclusive. And having become exclusive it is a very short step to becoming self righteous and condemning, which too many churches have been, just like the Pharisees. Before we assure ourselves: “But not us!” Think of how uncomfortable we become when confronted, especially in church, with people whose lives are not like ours, whose behaviour we view as inappropriate or undesirable. Our reaction to such people is liable to be negative, possibly fearful. And in part, especially when they do appear in church, we worry about what effect their presence has on our ability to have a relationship with God. Perhaps we aren’t as exclusive as the Pharisees. Maybe we don’t consciously fear the contamination of others. But we have more in common with the Pharisees than should make us comfortable.

Jesus in contrast has a completely opposite view of sin and holiness. He says:
There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile.
You can’t catch sin. It is not like an infection. Contact with defilement is not going to alienate you from God. Immediately we can see that this different attitude towards the defilement of sin will lead to a completely different view of what is possible for a community to be. If there is no need for the community to avoid contact with sin to avoid becoming infected by it: Then, there is no need for the community to withdraw. There is not need for the community to be exclusive, those who are alienated from God, do not need to be quarantined as they were lepers, because they don’t infect the community with their alienation. Jesus of course displays exactly that attitude in all his interactions with people. He is the one who reaches out and touches lepers. He is the one who consorts with prostitutes and tax-gathers. He is the one who shares table with sinners, and who even associates with Gentiles, people beyond the community in relationship with God. Jesus displays and openness and inclusivity that grows out of that view of sin and defilement. He can welcome sinners because he doesn’t fear contamination by them. Which is the very thing that the Pharisees, necessarily in their own view, condemn Jesus for. To them he has become a problem because he has broken their isolation from sin and so he himself must also be quarantined

This difference in outlook can be quite neatly illustrated: Holiness can view as a clean garment, which one has to be very careful not get dirty. Or holiness can be view as washing powder, which will clean any dirty garment. Jesus takes the latter outlook.

We don’t need to fear infection by sin. But the uncomfortable truth is that is because sin is already there inside us. It is a sickness of the heart. Jesus doesn’t, just now, address how it got there. But he points to what matters. He gives a list of the harmful things that come out of people. All of which begin in the heart, in the basic disposition of human character.
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.
This is what matters to Jesus. His list of course is not exhaustive of the bad things that can come out of the human heart. But his choice is illuminating. All of the items on his list are things that are destructive of community. Any of those things have the power to break up the community and destroy their relationship with one another and with God. It is for that reason that these thing matter. It is for this reason that they defile. It is not contamination from the defilement of others. It is not a willingness to be open that destroys community. It is the actions of those inside that flows from within.

Once again, Jesus, at this point isn’t offering a solution only a solemn warning. Except that we do already know the solution. The transformation of our hearts that comes from our relationship with him. He offers us the possibility to be clean, uncontaminated. And indeed the possibility of holiness in a way that cleanses others.

You Can’t Catch Sin by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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