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Home Sermons Exterior Sin Management [1]

Exterior Sin Management [1]

Date: February 17, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
A girl surrounding by six hands pointing at her in a critical manner.

Mark 7:1-23

Before we get too far into our reading for today, I want us to get one thing sorted out in our minds. It’s something I’ve been guilty of misunderstanding—a previous sermon I preached on this text relied upon this misunderstanding to make its point.

What I don’t think we always understand in the right way is the presence and the role of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time and place. We have all heard the stereotype, and assumed it to be true: Pharisees are hopeless legalists, spending all their time monitoring other people’s behavior with pursed lips and wagging fingers, checking off others’ misdeeds on a clipboard—while at the same time wrapping their own misdeeds in a cloak of self-righteousness and justifying them with obscure points of the Law.

Because Pharisees seem to be constantly in an argument with Jesus in the Gospels, we just assume they were bad guys, out to get our Lord and Savior. But we’ve created a caricature—made these Jewish contemporaries of Jesus into cartoon characters we can laugh at and that allow us to say, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee over there,” and thus not have to spend any time considering our own misbehavior that we try to justify with obscure Bible references.

The Pharisees were not cartoon characters, and they were not The Enemy. In fact, many scholars have said that what they taught and believed was not all that far different from what Jesus taught and believed. The arguments Jesus has with them are the kind of discussions Jewish scholars and teachers have—had then and still have to this day—as they try to figure out how to apply the Law, the Scriptures, to faithful lives in a time and place so different from Biblical times that it might just as well be another universe. We Christians see these arguments through a particular set of lenses—the lens of a family feud that we only can see one side of in our Scriptures, and the lens of two millennia of anti-Semitism that has, in many times and places, erupted into violence, torture, and genocide.

It’s time for us to recognize that, far from being The Enemy of All We Believe, the Pharisees were the good guys. They held their Scriptures in high regard, and sought to follow God’s will, as it was codified in the Law of Moses. They lived in a very different culture from that of their ancestors: their nation was not independent, no Davidic king sat on the throne in Jerusalem, the Ark of the Covenant that had symbolized God’s presence and held reminders of God’s care for the people in the wilderness had been lost forever; and by the time Mark’s Gospel was written, the Great Revolt had taken place, ending with Jerusalem and the Second Temple destroyed.

Without the Temple, the sacrificial system laid out in the Law, especially the book of Leviticus, could not be followed. How, then, shall we live? was the question before the Jewish people of Mark’s time, and it was the Pharisees who answered it. They were the ones who studied the Law and, assuming it still had authority as a reliable framework for a righteous life even without the sacrificial system, figured out how Jews could continue to be faithful in new times and places. Judaism as the Pharisees understood and taught it in the first century was the ancestor of modern rabbinic Judaism.

And, don’t forget, the man who wrote a substantial portion of our Christian Scriptures, Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul, was himself a Pharisee.

All this is to say that I don’t think we need to turn “Pharisee” into a code word for self-righteous legalism. I actually think, in these post-Holocaust times when anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise again, we must not use a name for a sect of first-century Jews as an epithet. And the point of our reading for today isn’t to throw shade at Pharisees, allowing us to go home satisfied that we’re the good guys because we’re not like those Pharisees back yonder. They’re not here to defend themselves.

Personally, I would be proud to be called a Pharisee, because what they did—study their Scriptures to figure out how to apply them in new times and places, so the people could remain faithful to their God—is what I do every week. The culprit in this reading isn’t Pharisaism or the Pharisees; the problem is one that can crop up in just about every religion. The problem is legalism. We can never say that Judaism, or Islam, or whatever faith has a monopoly on legalism; we Christians have had our fair share.

When I first moved out to Oregon, I got up one Sunday morning knowing that I needed to go get something from the drugstore; so I asked the folks I was staying with what time it opened. They looked at me like I had three heads! “It opens at the regular time. When else would it open?”

Well, even in Wichita in the early 1990s, a lot of stores didn’t open until late morning or early afternoon on Sundays—if they were open at all. Sundays are different in the part of the world where I grew up, although even here that is changing now. And for a long time in a lot of places, there were some pretty strict rules about what could and could not be done on Sunday. There are still places in the United States, and I think Missouri is one of them, where one cannot buy alcohol on Sunday—and a few states even still ban the sale of cars. (Why cars, and not something else?)

The list was much longer in Puritan times, and it’s even reported that a certain Captain Kimble, on his return to Boston after a sea voyage in 1656, met his wife on the front step of their home and kissed her. Because it was Sunday, Captain Kimble was subsequently tried and convicted for “lewd and unseemly behavior” and sentenced to spend two hours in the stocks. [2]

But these laws didn’t just regulate behavior on Sundays; there were laws restricting what people were allowed to wear, and rules banning the making of toasts—not the bread but the little speeches with raised glasses.

And then there were the laws banning public—and in some cases, even private—dancing. My mom’s hometown banned public dancing until 1979. The town in which the movie Footloose, released in 1984, was set was based on Elmore City, Oklahoma, where it was the clergy who spoke most forcefully against dancing before the local high school was allowed to hold a prom for the first time in 1980. [3] Nowadays they have an annual “Footloose Festival,” celebrating their being inspiration for the hit movie and welcoming lots of folks to dance in public. And it wasn’t until 2018 that the Sunday dancing ban, which doesn’t seem to have been enforced in recent years, was repealed in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

We Christians have had our fair share of legalism.

“Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?” a group of scribes and Pharisees asked him. (A couple things to keep in mind: first, in those days people did not know about germs or about the connection between clean hands and avoiding illness; and second, this particular hand-washing wasn’t so much an issue of cleanliness as a religious ritual.) Any time someone comes to Jesus and asks questions that begin with “Why…”, they are not seeking information; they’re making an accusation.

Why are your disciples picking and eating grain on the Sabbath?

Why did you heal that person on the Sabbath?

Why do you associate with those people?

Jesus turns the question around on them, reminding them that their slates aren’t entirely clean, either. Personally, I find it sort of annoying if I’m having a conversation with someone about some behavior of theirs and they turn it around so we’re arguing not about their annoying behavior but mine. But that’s what Jesus does here.

I think there’s some hyperbole here; there is apparently no evidence that any first-century Jews gave everything to the religious establishment to avoid having to take care of elderly parents. What Jesus is pointing out is that these folks, in the interest of exterior sin management (also known as minding other people’s business), had come up with a lot of rules and practices that weren’t actually in the written torah and were spending a lot of time and energy on monitoring other people’s obedience to those rules and practices.

But again, I don’t think we should let ourselves off the hook by saying, “Thank God we’re not like those folks who were policing the disciples’ personal hygiene.” Legalism is always a possibility for people of faith—any faith. And I think the temptation to legalism is greater at certain points in time, which can be different for different people.

When I was in seminary we put a lot of stock in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and what it purported to say about our particular ways of taking in and processing information and making decisions. Current thinking seems to be that the MBTI is no more accurate a predictor of personality or behavior than your average newspaper horoscope; but I’ve actually found there’s some truth in it when it comes to my own behavior.

When I’m stressed or worried, I have a tendency to try and impose strict rules on myself. It’s a way of asserting some control over something when the rest of my life feels out of control. (It doesn’t work.) I’ve known of people who respond to stress and anxiety by trying to impose similar rules on others.

And this tells me something about why legalism creeps into our faith lives. I think it’s an indication of fear. Whether that fear is of violence on the streets, or of economic trouble, or whatever, it’s oftentimes something that’s out of our hands. I can take reasonable precautions to keep from being attacked, but I can’t necessarily 100% guarantee it will never happen. The economy is subject to forces that we can’t do much to influence. Some days we read the news and feel like our world is crashing in.

We’re afraid, and we can’t do anything about the things we are afraid of, so we seize on something else that we can do something about…or think we can do something about. We become obsessed with rules about right behavior, right eating, you name it, either our own or someone else’s. And when we are obsessed with enforcing strict rules, we tend to throw grace and mercy out the window. We treat ourselves or others unkindly. We become intolerant of misbehavior, maybe even imposing strict punishments—two hours in the stocks for kissing your wife on Sunday after not seeing her for months?—for violations.

And I think that’s what the real sin of legalism is—and it appears that’s what Jesus thought, too, based on the end of our reading for today. The scribes and Pharisees who confronted Jesus were concerned about what went into a person’s body, the food they ate, whether or not it and the hands that touched it were properly washed (and not because they understood that dirty hands and contaminated food cause disease I don’t think). But Jesus pointed them in another direction.

When we are focused on sin management, interior or exterior, forcing ourselves or others to obey strict and nitpicky little rules and sitting in judgment when we or they fail to keep them, we find ourselves committing graver sins. We gossip. We puff ourselves up when we manage to keep all the rules when others seem to struggle, or we envy others when it appears that they’re keeping them while we’re struggling. We mistreat ourselves and other people. Perhaps we give up, thinking that since there’s no real way we can keep all those rules, we might as well just do whatever we want.

These are not defilements of the stomach, but of the heart, and I think they have their root in what might be the greatest sins of all: fear and distrust of the God who loves us perfectly. Our good behavior isn’t what saves us. We don’t have to be afraid that if we step one foot out of line God will send us to someplace where it’s always excessively warm. We don’t have to try to control others so they don’t end up spending eternity overheated.

There isn’t anything we can do to make God love us more; and there isn’t anything we can do to make God love us less. [4]

Our behavior is not a condition on which God determines whether or not to love us. The love is a given. God loves us first, before we even think about trying to earn it, and our behavior is a response to being loved so perfectly and completely—we do our best to act in ways that please God because God loves us.

And rather than spending time and energy condemning others’ behavior, why don’t we instead do our best to share that love with them?

[1] This title comes from a 2015 blog post from John Pavlovitz that has been quite influential to me:  https://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/01/15/the-greatest-false-idol-of-modern-christianity/.

[2] This comes from a somewhat humorous take on the Blue Laws in Yankee magazine:  https://newengland.com/yankee-magazine/living/humor/puritan-laws-only-in-new-england/.  (The link will take you to a site where an invitation to subscribe will pop up, but the option is available to decline and click through to the article.)

[3] See https://www.405magazine.com/dance-fever-the-town-that-inspired-and-got-footloose/.  I thought the dance ban in Henryetta lasted much longer than 1979, but this article says otherwise.

[4] Thanks goes to Philip Yancey in What’s So Amazing About Grace? for this observation.