Some time ago, I spoke before the Placerville California City Council. They were receiving public comment about an ordinance that would define where registered sex offenders could or could not be.
I had recently returned from a conference in Atlanta. I told them a story that was on the Atlanta news about a kid who was convicted of having sex with a minor while he too was a minor. This caused him to be a registered sex offender. He worked at an auto repair shop that was next to a school and was turning his life around. A new Atlanta ordinance would require him to stay away from that school and would deprive him of his job.
I was trying to impress on the city council the need to be flexible and not to ruin people’s lives with restrictive sex offender laws.
I also had an agenda. I had a parishioner, who as a high school teacher, had an affair with one of his students and was thereby, a registered sex offender. Our Saviour had a tutoring business that used a parish building and was run by a parishioner. This parishioner had managed to have the tutoring business classified as a county school. The proposed ordinance would have ex-communicated the parishioner who was a registered sex offender. The ordinance ended up with enough flexibility to allow the parishioner to attend church at Our Saviour. Some years later the ordinance was declared unconstitutional.
I told the city council that no ordinance can anticipate all exceptions or circumstances and that is why God invented courts. To which, the city manager who was also the city attorney chuckled. Government has the obligation to balance public safety and citizen fairness. This is a difficult task.
Flawed human beings make flawed law. So it would seem that a perfect God would make perfect law.
The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah or the teachings. They are also called the law, for they also contain what has become Jewish law. We see this as religious law, but that was not what was intended. These 613 laws were for a people and they were meant to be their entire legal code. Some compare the Law of Moses to the Hammurabi code.
The Torah is also a story of human depravity. Violence is introduced with the sons of Adam and Eve and it goes downhill from there. It gets so bad that God decides to destroy it all and start over, which led to the flood story.
After the flood, human nature does not change appreciatively. So God goes with Plan B: pick a couple to be the parents of a nation who have a close and special relationship with God. These descendants have a mixed track record of righteousness. It would seem, and I postulate, that they were so bad that God decided to give them rules for them to live by, the main ones literally written in stone.
God tells them, like God does in Deuteronomy 4, that they are to observe these commandments diligently. Of course, they don’t. They viewed the Babylonian exile as punishment for not observing the law. So when they returned from exile, they became zealous for the law, even if it meant that families would be broken up.
By Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were the leading banner bearers of keeping the law intact and strictly enforced. The Pharisees were like the Jewish Taliban. Jesus did not agree with the way the Pharisees interpreted Jewish law. To make his point, Jesus liked to figuratively poke the Pharisees in the eye.
That’s what Jesus does in Mark 7. Jewish law does reference some good advice about cleanliness. By Jesus’ time, Jewish washing rituals had gotten to the point of being their own liturgies.
We hear many references to the Pharisees hanging around Jesus. Their purpose seems to be to catch Jesus into making a mistake or to be less than Jewish. At least initially, their purpose seems to be to point out to the crowds that Jesus is a heretic and not worthy of their attention.
Jesus did not attract the cream of the crop as his followers. For example, there were no apostles who were Pharisees. Jesus’ followers were hard working, average people, who were a little rough around the edges. Apparently some of them didn’t wash their hands before eating. It must have been bad parenting.
In the minds of the Pharisees, it was not the disciple’s fault that they failed to wash their hands, it was Jesus’. If Jesus is this great teacher that everyone says that he is, why doesn’t Jesus teach them the proper rules?
The washing of hands before and after eating was Jewish tradition. It is not part of the Law of Moses. By Jesus’ time and in the centuries that follow, commentary on the 613 laws become laws in themselves as part of the tradition, such as the washing of hands.
It is still too early in the story for the Pharisees to conclude that provoking Jesus is like provoking a bear. Jesus responds by not quoting the Torah, but by quoting one of the great prophets, Isaiah, specifically Isaiah 29:13. The prophets of old were the heralds of the law, calling the people to follow God.
Isaiah criticizes the people of his time for going through all the religious rules and rituals, but do not love God in their hearts. Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of being the same kind of people: a good religious show is more important than making God a part of their being. Instead of truly worshipping God, they make up rules to suit their own purposes. They say that they are true to God’s commandments, but instead they replace God’s commandments with their own teachings.
The main law was to follow and worship God. Without that law, the rest are insignificant. Without that law, God’s special relationship with the people dissolves. Isaiah criticizes the people by saying they are observant of the law, but they don’t follow through with their actions. Human tradition does not trump God’s commandments.
Jesus had two main problems with the Pharisees. The first was that they were hypocrites who told people how they were to behave and then turned around did as they pleased. Jesus hated hypocrites. The other was that the Pharisees were so bogged down in the law that they failed to see the purpose of the law. God gave the law so that God would be honored and that they would treat each other well.
It is the latter issue that Jesus faults the Pharisees in this case. We are not defiled by what comes from the outside. We are defiled by what comes out of us. Human law is on the outside; divine law is inside of us and expresses itself in the life of the believer.
The law never has and never will eradicate evil from the world. Evil comes from within us. Jesus even conveniently provides a list: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (Mark 7:21b-22)
Instead of looking to the law, we should be looking at ourselves. Should we wash our hands before eating? It’s a good idea so that we don’t get sick. Is washing our hands before we eat going to keep us from sinning? Probably not.
I actually felt pretty good about that list until Jesus added folly. Envy and pride I can work on. But folly? It might be hard for me to get out in the morning without avoiding folly, which is in itself folly. I just can’t avoid it!
Perhaps Jesus added folly as an indictment of the Pharisees. Their petty attacks and observations are just folly. It’s folly because they just don’t get it. They miss the point of having a law in the first place.
Laws are made to make us safe and so that life can be fair. When someone destroys safety or is not fair, there are consequences. This is when evil comes out of a person. This is when a person is defiled.
Is it fair or legal to deprive a young man in Atlanta of his livelihood over a youthful mistake? Is it fair or legal to excommunicate someone for a mistake made years ago and for which has never been repeated? Do we so tightly hold on to the law that we forget fairness?
Most of our actions are not split second decisions. We decide how we act and react. We decide if what comes out of us will defile us or honor another and God. We can decide that we will not do any of those things on Jesus’ list or more. Except that folly thing. I still don’t know how I am going to avoid that.
Text: Mark 7:1–8, 15-15, 21-23