They come from within.
Sounds like the tagline for a bad science fiction or horror movie doesn’t it?
This line, from this week’s RCL excerpt from Mark, is the writer’s way of identifying the difference between legalism and faith. The author of Mark has Jesus berate the “Pharisees and scribes” for their emphasis on ritual cleanliness while ignoring spiritual shortcomings.
In the story, the Pharisees criticize Jesus because his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating. What’s wrong with that? When I was a kid, my mother would have “criticized” me pretty soundly for the same thing. Right before she sent me packing back to the sink to do it right. And maybe suggesting I skip dessert so that next time I’ll remember better.
I realize that purification was, and is, an important part of some religious observances. My point is simply that those observances have some foundation in practical hygiene and physical health. They are not prerequisites for spiritual health. The problem is that, over time, practices that safeguarded the material health of the community morphed into rules and doctrine that became substitutes, and obstacles, for a living spiritual relationship.
Mark’s author has Jesus fire back in no uncertain terms. He calls them hypocrites. He says that they “honor God with their lips but their hearts are far away.”
There are lots of Pharisees with us today.
Mark’s author has Jesus point out that not only do the Pharisees substitute rules and regulations for a loving relationship with God, they have no hesitation in re-interpreting those rules to suit themselves at any time.
How are those who use Scripture today to condemn others and justify themselves any different?
Mark’s author has Jesus say that it’s “not what goes into a person that defiles them. It’s what comes out.” For that message to have meaning for us today, we need to understand the full implications of that first statement.
It’s not what rules or doctrines we follow that determine whether or not we’re “Christian.” It’s not only not what we eat, it’s not where we live, it’s not who we marry, it’s not how we dress, it’s not whether we go to church, it’s not how or if we pray; it’s not any of the traditions or restrictions or interpretations that we’ve accumulated over time in religions varied and various around the planet.
It’s how we act toward each other and the world.
If “what comes out of us” is self-serving; if it’s damaging to others; if it ignores the well-being of the world around us; then it is “far from the commandment of God.”
Mark’s author lists a bunch of examples – adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.
I doubt that it was intended to be a comprehensive list. They’re what the King James Version translates as “evil thoughts” – kakos dialogismos. It amounts to something like saying that this is what happens when we try to rationalize the all-too-human things that we do.
It’s also a way to say that we can’t work on our relationship with Theos until we recognize that it has nothing to do with what list of rules we follow.
And that’s not easy. Because we’re all subject to things like pride or covetousness. And heaven knows I’ve been guilty of foolishness so often that if it were an Olympic sport, I’m sure I’d have the lifetime gold medal.
And we’ll continue to be susceptible to those things. Wouldn’t something simple, like washing our hands, or not dancing, or only swearing on the fifth Sunday of seventh month when the moon is covered by a blue tarp be easier? It would. But it wouldn’t work.
Faith is harder than that.
Luckily, we’re not required to be perfect at it. Our inseverable relationship with God tells us with certainty that we are one with God, no matter how flawed we are.
But it also challenges us to do better. To stop trying to work it out in our own heads, ending up with nothing more than “the traditions of the elders.” To trust our living relationship with God to guide us to think and act in consideration and compassion for all. To love one another as the Message of the Christ tells us that Theos loves all of us.
They Come From Within.
It could be the trailer to a horror story.
Or a love story.
It’s up to us.