When Don Cupitt presented this series way back in 1984, he was described as the 'New Wave Believer'. New Waves come and go. The irony here was that there was nothing new even in the early to mid nineteen eighties in anything Cupitt was saying. The genius here lies...read more
But today we are in the New Testament, in Mark’s Gospel.
Today we are in the New Testament but two weeks ago I was sitting in Ambleside. I was in the Lake District for the day. Ambleside is just tourists and shops and I was sitting on my own on a bench looking at John 6, at which we looked here last week.
That sounds terribly pious but I definitely wasn’t interested in the shops and I was truing to work out if I would be able to do anything with that difficult reading we had last week. I was considering abandoning the Lectionary and doing something more straightforward instead.
Anyway I couldn’t make much of it and there I was looking at John 6 in the middle of Ambleside and this young man came up to me and stood beside me and he had a leaflet in his hand and an earnest look and he said to me, he asked me, “Have you ever thought about Jesus?”
“Thought about him?’ I thought. “He has been driving me nuts of the last half hour. You haven’t got any idea what this means have you?”
The only thing is that life is short and he would definitely have had something to say about John 6 and this was happening very quickly and I had to make a decision so what I actually said was “No”.
And he went away without ever noticing what I was reading on that bench on that sunny afternoon and I never found out what he thought about John 6 but I kind of guessed from the leaflet he had with him the way the conversation might have gone.
We’d have had a clash over different interpretations of the same thing which is the background to today’s reading and today’s reading is much easier than last week’s one.
It is all about different ways of reading the same scripture.
The reading today is much easier than last week’s because it has a beginning and an end at least and something does happen in between.
But everything which was going on in John 6 last week is going on in today’s reading from Mark 7.
You have a clash between Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees, which means you are presented with two ways of looking at the same thing. But that clash turns out not to be between Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees at all but we will get to that in a moment.
Some of Jesus’ disciples – and ‘disciples’ here will probably mean more than just the twelve (It will refer to a bigger group of followers and camp followers.) were eating without obeying the rules about hand washing and so on.
The argument was about obedience to God. And the law, the Torah, the Jewish Law, said that certain things were to be done.
This is all presented here as a clash between two groups, Jesus’ followers and the Pharisees but don’t be distracted by that because nothing is ever quite as we expect it to be in the gospels and the reference here is not to to what happened when Jesus was alive, It is all to what was happening at the time Mark’s Gospel was written.
To give you an idea of timescale, Mark’s Gospel was in existence probably some time around the early seventies or maybe in its final form a bit later. We are now forty or so years after Jesus died but right in the middle of another crisis.
This is very significant for today’s reading.
The Pharisees get a terrible press in the gospels and this is a bit unfair but there is a reason for it. In actual fact the Pharisees were a largely working class movement made up of people who were as serious about their faith as Jesus’ disciples will have been.
But we cannot compare the Pharisees in Jesus’ day to the Pharisees as they were described here by the time the gospels were written because of what happened probably just before Mark’s Gospel came into being.
What happened was history changing and critical to the emergence of Christianity as we know it.
The Jews rose up against the Romans and this was no small revolt. There were tens and tens of thousands of people killed on both sides. In Hebrew this was known as המרד הגדול the Great Revolution. In English it is the First Jewish–Roman War.
This lasted from 66-73 and in 70 the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. This was for most Jewish groups but most notably the Sadducees, the end.
Because they didn’t need the temple in order to function, the Pharisees survived as a group and out of them came modern Judaism and the Christians survived and from them came the Church.
So even by the time Mark is written there are two battles going on. The first is between the Pharisees and the Christians and the second is between the Jewish Christians and the non-Jewish Christians within the church and we saw that earlier in the summer with the Good Samaritan, Jairus’s daughter and the Prodigal Son.
And you have it going on here a bit. But to understand it you have to recognise that while we may have a recollection here of what may have happened on a particular day in Jesus’ life what we definitely have here is a reflection of the religious situation as it was at the end of the first century, long after Jesus died.
The disciples and would-be disciples who are reading this in the late first century are now are being taught not what happened or may have happened on a particular day then but are being guided in how to behave now.
And we do have to recognise that the Jesus we are encountering here is not primarily a person but a pattern. Because what we see here in this story is a radical change in outlook.
This may shock you but the Jesus we encounter in the gospels is not the Saviour. He is in part the disciple par excellence.
In him, in Jesus, you are watching the transformation of a human being into what we are all to become. We see how he lives until we see him die and rise and in this ultimate surrender of the ego in death all that is left is God. The Logos of John’s Gospel. Light. Love. The kingdom of God. Eternal life.
And in the passage we read today from Mark the Jesus you see is showing us where the Samaritan who rescued the bleeding, possibly dead, probably foreign man in the road and broke all of the rules would have got to had we been given the next bit of the story (but we never got the story of what happened to the Samaritan afterwards.).
At the heart of it all is love and compassion and nothing else. And once we get that – and we can only get it by changing how we behave, hence the pattern, the blueprint for our behaviour here – now that I have seen all of that I am going back to re-read everything I ever read before and to see it all in a new light. (That is where it is trying to get us.)
And it doesn’t matter whether I am a Pharisee or a follower of Jesus, I am going to read it all in a completely new light with a wholly different way of understanding any and all of it.
And this is where the Jesus of Mark 7 is coming from.
If you take seriously ‘love your enemies’, ‘forgive’, ‘do not judge’, ‘turn the other cheek’ and you practise this pattern of behaviour with every thought, action, intention, even the most subtle of inner responses to anyone and anything for a day you are going to be reading the Bible completely differently after that.
Or else it will come in a flash when you are in the position of the Good Samaritan or you are facing some real crisis – bereavement, illness, loss, trauma or whatever.
And you can see that the Jesus with whom we are presented here and in the gospels is acting all of this out. Scrape away even the surface of today’s reading and you do have the Good Samaritan breaking the rules in order to keep the rules, breaking the law to obey the most important of all of the commandments which is to love God and love your neighbour as yourself.
The axiomatic moment in this reading comes in verse 6. The whole thing turns around this single statement,
‘This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.’
That has jumped out at Jesus here and it makes sense. He really understands it because he is living it.
Mark’s Gospel is not the least bit interested in criticising the Pharisees. Mark’s Gospel is criticising the behaviour of Jesus’ followers who at the least bit of provocation move into a defensive position in which all we do is criticise other people. When we do that then we are never going to change because we become right and they become wrong.
And religion gone bad always does that. And this is what this whole passage is really about. You either have self-justification and with it judgement, condemnation, criticism.
Or you have self-transformation through a refusal to judge – ever and a commitment to love – always.
One is the antithesis, the opposite of the other. They cannot co-exist.
And which way you go will determine how you read and what you see and how you understand the Bible.
r Jesus is not presented so much as a person as a pattern. In the gospels he often appears as the disciple par excellence, the man on a journey to complete self-realisation. It is at the end that we see who he really is and, in so doing, who we really are. twitter The...read more
I do not normally publish the text of sermons for two primary reasons. There is usually a podcast available of the audio and a sermon is written in order to be preached and it is seldom that the preacher sticks rigidly to the text in front of him or her. In this...read more