Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Song of Songs 2:8–13; James 1:17–27 & Mark 7:1–8, 14–23
A number of years ago I was working in Clayton and living in Mulgrave. The company I worked for at the time was located on Centre Road, not far from the intersection with Westall Road. Between the street that I lived on and Centre Road, was another street that connected with Centre Road. Taking that street was a good way of avoiding the heavy traffic on the other main roads that connected with Centre Road, and it was a popular route used by people who lived in the local area.
Some time after I had moved into the house in Mulgrave, the speed limit on this street was reduced from 60 kmh to 50kmh. The justification for the reduction was that it would save lives. The rationale was that lowering the speed limit would result in fewer accidents, or if there were still accidents, then the fact that the cars involved were travelling at lower speeds meant there would be fewer fatalities and/or serious injuries.
The change in speed limit was not well communicated to the local community, and the number of 50kmh signs on the street was quite sparse. So it came as somewhat of a surprise to me when I received a traffic infringement notice for exceeding the new limit by 4kmh one morning on my way to work.
Now being painfully aware of the reduced limit, I was once again surprised only a week or so later when I received a second infringement notice, this time for being 3kmh over the limit. To say I was annoyed about this situation is an understatement, and I found it hard to accept that being 3kmh over the limit posed a threat to life and limb. While I totally understood and accepted the need for changes to road rules that would save lives, which was the bigger picture, I couldn’t see how fining people for being 3kmh over the limit was really achieving that. It seemed to me that it was purely ‘revenue raising’. It was a case of focussing on the detail and ignoring the bigger picture.
In a way, Jesus is dealing with a similar situation in today’s gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark. Some Pharisees and scribes, who were the guardians and protectors of the Jewish law, had come to Galilee from Jerusalem because they had no doubt heard stories of Jesus disputing or questioning their interpretation of the law. Now they had witnessed for themselves a number of the disciples of Jesus who were eating without first washing their hands according to the prescribed tradition.
There was a particular ritual way that Jewish people were expected to wash their hands prior to eating, and to eat without observing this ritual way was to effectively make oneself ‘ritually unclean’. This is why they ask Jesus why his disciples don’t live according to the tradition of the elders. The tradition they refer to is one they traced back to an oral law communicated to Moses alongside the written law Moses had received from God.
Jesus uses this as an opportunity to make the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the scribes visible to the crowds. He accuses them of abandoning the commandment of God, which is to love God with their whole heart, and holding on instead to human tradition, which is man-made and not from God. To support his argument Jesus gives them a specific example of one of their man-made traditions that contradicts one of the Ten Commandments.
Unfortunately those verses, which are verses 9 to 13 of chapter 7, have been left out of today’s reading. The commandment that Jesus refers to is to honour one’s father and mother, and the human tradition is what was known as ‘Corban’.
Corban was an offering to God, and if something was to be used as an offering to God then it took precedence over anything else. There were those Pharisees who would withhold their own wealth and possessions rather than support their parents when their parents were in need, and they would justify it by saying that their wealth and possessions were ‘Corban’. Therefore Jesus exposed their behaviour for what is was, a blatant disregard for God’s commandment.
Jesus also uses the tradition of ritually cleaning cups, pots and other vessels, which was also a part of this same human tradition that was derived from an oral law communicated to Moses, as another example of focussing on the detail and ignoring the bigger picture. What was the point of making sure you observed this tradition of ritual cleaning, if you were committing other acts such as murder, theft, adultery and deceit, which were all transgressions against the commandments God had given Moses? That was not going to put you in a good relationship with God.
Jesus told us that the ‘Great and First Commandment’ is to love God with our whole being. I wonder if you can think of any rules or regulations today, be they from the church or society in general, that we tend to place more importance on than we do the ‘Great and First Commandment’?