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Summary: A sermon for Proper 17, year B. The commandment of God verus human tradition

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13th Sunday after Pentecost (PR. 17) September 3, 2006 “Series B”

Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, through the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to your Word for our lives, that has been revealed to us through your Son, Jesus the Christ. And through the same Spirit, give us the courage and wisdom to embrace your will for our lives, that we might truly worship you in spirit and truth, and serve your kingdom through the witness of our lives. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.

I think every family has adopted a set of rules, which may be spoken or assumed, to help to define what is acceptable behavior within the home. They are rules or customs that actually help to shape family identity. And one of the areas that these rules come into play, are as we gather around the table to share a meal together.

For example, in our home, there are certain expectations that Josie has established for proper family etiquette, that need to be followed if you want to eat without being the recipient of a certain glare in her eyes that lets you know you have crossed the line. One of those expectations is that you only have about a minute to show up at the table when she announces that the meal is ready.

I can understand her position. If she has spent time preparing a meal, the rest of us should have the courtesy to come to the table when called. And when we come to the table, we had better present ourselves with clean hands, a shirt on our body, and no hat on our head. Josie is a real stickler on the hat issue. Even when we go into a fast-food chain to grab a bite of lunch, whoever eats with us will be asked to remove their hats, even if everyone else in the restaurant dons a hat.

Of course, families are not the only place in which rules of etiquette are seen to govern and define group identity. Most social clubs, including the VFW and American Legion, require that you must remove your hat in order to be served, as a sign of respect for those who have served and gave their lives in defense of our country.

But more importantly, in light of our Gospel lesson for this morning, rules of etiquette have often been established to define and govern religious identity. According to our text, some scribes and Pharisees noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples were eating with out washing their hands. And then mark adds an editorial comment, saying: “For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.”

There are a couple of points about this text that I would like to comment on. First, notice that in Mark’s editorial comment, he is not just speaking about the scribes and Pharisees observing these traditions of the elders. He says that all Jews in that day observed those traditions, which shows that they were more than simply rational hygiene practices about washing one’s hands and dishes before eating. They were a part of the kosher laws that helped to define and govern Israel’s religious identity as a people of God.

In fact, Orthodox Judaism to this day continues to follow the kosher laws that defined Judaism at the time of Christ. And if you have ever eaten in an Orthodox Jewish restaurant, you will notice that not only are the dishes clean, but the dishes are changed with each course. The reason for this is, that dairy products, such as butter, are not to be served with meat products in the same course. Thus, in some Jewish homes today, you will find double sets of dishes used for each meal.

Thus, when the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus why his disciples did “not live according to the tradition of the elders, but ate with defiled hands,” they were not just concerned about their neglect of good hygiene. At issue was the disciple’s neglect of the traditions that defined and governed their identity as a religious community – their identity as God’s chosen people.

If we were to look at two of the verses that were omitted from our text for this morning, we find that Jesus goes much further than addressing the issue of hygiene. In verses 18 and 19 Jesus says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” And then Mark concludes this statement by stating, “Thus, he declared all foods clean.”

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