Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
“You realize, of course, that I’m a Pharisee.” The comment was made by one of my religion professors in college. He also happened to be a rabbi and I was the only Gentile – the only Christian - in that particular Judaism class. He enjoyed challenging me to see my own tradition through new eyes. This is the same guy who would gently tease that I “belonged to that heretical Nazarite sect” - you know, after those 1st century Jews who looked to Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah? As that course and others went on, I learned to tease him right back, but for each of us it was always done in the spirit of deep respect for the other’s faith. After I’d taken a fall term course where he’d given us a couple of days off for the Jewish high holy days, I took a spring term course where he invited me to tell my Jewish classmates all about my observance of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the days we Christians gather during Holy Week to remember Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples and his death on the cross. I was surprised when he gave us those days off too. “But they’re your high holy days,” he said; “what’s fair is fair.”
Ever since those Judaism classes in college, growing my interfaith understanding has been deeply important to me. Over the last few years that’s expanded to include learning more about Islam as well. There is much we can learn from one another there too, as we’ll see during our interfaith dialogue here in a few weeks. Meanwhile, with our roots as Christians lying in the Jewish faith, it’s important we do our best to understand that tradition.
Our focus for this final week in our “Jesus Through Their Eyes” sermon series is “insiders” in the gospel of Mark. In Jesus’ day, in the Jewish community in which he lived, it seems to me the ultimate insiders must have been the scribes and the Pharisees. Devoted to the law of God, dedicated to careful observance of God’s commandments, their lives were ordered around in-depth study of Scripture and daily religious observances and prayers. These were the good folks you’d look to if you had a question about how to practice your faith, or about how a particular passage from the Torah or the prophets ought to be interpreted.
So it concerns me whenever Christians toss around the word “Pharisee” as if it’s a synonym for “villain” and ought to cue our boos and hisses. For Jesus and his fellow Jews, to call someone a “Pharisee” was in many ways to indicate he was a pillar of the community. These weren’t Jews in name only. They were serious about worshiping and following God; they were trying extremely hard to do the right thing. Certainly the interreligious parallels aren’t exact, but to help us wrap our minds around the way they were seen at the time, think about the way a Christian community might consider its respected elders and deacons and pastors, faithful Sunday School teachers, seminary professors, Bible scholars, and other dedicated saints of the church. Or think about an individual whose Christian faith and practice you really admire, someone who strikes you as deeply devoted to God. Now just as an exercise, try imagining that’s what a Pharisee looks like to you. Remember, the apostle Paul proudly invoked his credentials as a Pharisee as an indication of how dedicated he was to his Jewish faith.
Jesus had plenty of critique for the scribes and Pharisees of his day. We see it in all four gospels. But it’s important to understand why he called them out. It wasn’t because they were scribes or Pharisees. It wasn’t because they were devoted to trying to live according to God’s law, as if following God’s law was a bad thing. Jesus himself was a practicing Jew. Respecting God’s law was, for him and his whole community, a good thing. So Jesus taking on the scribes and Pharisees in the gospels wasn’t about Jesus vs. the Jews. It was more a case of: “hey, guys, let’s get our own house in order.”
Two of Jesus’ main concerns, when it came to calling out these pillars of his faith community, were a fixation on small details at the expense of the big picture, and a spirit of hypocrisy. Both come up in our text today from Mark 7, which on the surface appears to be about handwashing.
The text says “the Pharisees and some of the scribes” noticed that Jesus and his disciples were eating “with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.” But a parenthetical note follows, explaining what’s at issue here is less a matter of cleanliness in general, and more a matter of following the letter of certain ritual purity laws. When they get on the disciples’ case about this, Jesus says “hang on, let’s think about the spirit in which you are performing those rituals,” quoting the prophet Isaiah on the danger of honoring God with their lips, when their hearts are far from God, and reminding them their hand washing ritual is a human tradition rather than a divine command.
Jesus isn’t saying handwashing is inherently evil (the Center for Disease Control would be relieved to hear it, I imagine, during cold and flu season). His point is that if our hearts aren’t in it, if we’re behaving hypocritically, none of our religious practices will do us a bit of good. This isn’t an anti-Jewish statement; in fact, it’s a theme common to a number of Old Testament prophets. You may remember the word of God through the prophet Amos, for instance: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them… but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-22, 24)
Jesus’ concern here is religious people’s tendency to focus on an external religious practice – any external religious practice – rather than the state of one’s heart. When we fixate on smaller scale details like these, we can miss the big picture.
To tell another story on myself here, I was taught at church camp as a child that having a very specific type of personal devotional time, with an unwavering commitment to a particular format for my prayers and Bible reading every single morning, was the key to faithfulness as a Christian. It’s taken the patient guidance of a number of respected mentors to help me internalize that the whole point of that exercise was supposed to be enjoying some private time with God. So that resting in God’s presence with a beautiful Scripture text or a hymn, or reading the same Bible passage as many days in a row as I find it speaks to me (rather than speedreading my way through multiple chapters), or noticing with awestruck wonder the majesty of God’s creation while outside on a walk – these things can all accomplish that same goal as well. It’s been far more effective, certainly, in helping me feel close to God than it ever was to beat myself up about “doing it wrong.”
Again, Jesus cautions against religious folks’ tendency to focus on an external religious practice – any external religious practice – rather than the state of one’s heart, and one’s relationship with God. When we fixate on smaller scale details like these, we can miss the big picture.
Jesus also outs the insiders – here in our text from Mark 7, and plenty of other times in the gospels, too – for worrying more about someone else’s relationship with God than their own.
In this context, I’ve heard more sermons than I’d care to recall about the Pharisees having too many rules. How dare they add to the Torah so many laws of their own invention, and then have the audacity to pretend those rules were actually important?
Well, I’ve got bad news for you, my friends. You’re in a Presbyterian church today. Which means we have this thing called the Book of Order, part of our denomination’s constitution, that spells out for us in painstaking detail all kinds of guidelines about how we should order our lives together. Ask any Presbyterian pastor how they felt about their polity class in seminary, or about taking their ordination exams, and I’ll bet they could regale you with stories of having to learn their way around this rule book. I remember thoroughly outlining and tabbing and highlighting my 1991 copy, my head spinning with references like D-2.0203b and G-1.0504, as I prepared for my own ordination exams.
As it so happens there is excellent theology in these pages too. Really inspiring explanations of why we do what we do in worship, and why we govern and discipline ourselves as a church body the way we do. This rule book can be enormously helpful as we seek to practice our own faith faithfully. When we take these principles seriously and try our best to follow them, it can help us to walk in the ways God intends for us. And, of course, that was the intent behind those hundreds of additional Jewish laws too. They were created as “a fence around the Torah,” since following the larger body of Jewish law would prevent people from in any way violating God’s law.
At any rate, whatever else may be our takeaways today, let not a denomination known for its allegiance to Robert’s Rules of Order, and doing things “decently and in order” according to this book – let’s not cast the first stone at anyone who takes comfort in their own religious rules. Remember instead how Jesus would regularly out the insiders for worrying more about someone else’s relationship with God than their own.
And what might Jesus have to say about the overall length of our Presbyterian rule book and the sheer number of details included in it? I’m relieved to report that our national church has actually made some headway in reducing the magnitude of the Book of Order in recent years. It’s a start, and we probably have plenty of work yet to do as we consider the kinds of concerns Jesus raised with the religious leaders of his day, and how we might heed those same warnings ourselves.
Meanwhile some of you, I realize, have not only never seen a copy of this Book of Order I speak of, you might not have even known it existed. (What on earth is she talking about?) That’s fine! We have a lot of hyphenated Presbyterians among us. Presby-Methodists and Bapti-terians and Presby-Catholics and so on. And some of you may be new to Church, period. But the same principle applies no matter our particular religious upbringing, or lack thereof. Are there ways in which we have judged others for letting God down, while neglecting to notice our own mistakes? Where might God be calling us back to majoring on the majors, if you will, and focusing on what’s truly important? Are there areas of our lives where we’ve not given enough attention to the state of our hearts?
I look around this room – and look in the mirror– and I see good church folks, regulars in worship, the kinds of people who turn up on the Sunday of the annual congregational meeting. We care about the state of our church finances, and we’re excited about church mission projects, and it matters to us what we’re teaching our children and youth here in Sunday School, and perhaps we’ve devoted many hours of our lives to attending church services and church meetings. If we understand ourselves as the religious insiders of our own day, are there analogies to the scribes and Pharisees as insiders in Jesus’ day? And if so, how might we see Jesus again through their eyes?
Where is he challenging us, and where are his invitations today, as we look back on another year of ministry together and set our sights on where God is calling us next?