A Response

Mark 7:1-23     

 The Human Heart Leads Us…

           Today’s story is in the Gospel of Mark. Remember that Mark is known to be the first Gospel written—the one that the other Gospels borrow from. Imagine yourself in Syria. Yes, a long time ago, but in Syria. The authors of Mark may have gathered together this collection of stories there, sometime around 70 C.E. These writings seem to be aimed at a specific audience: Greek-speaking non-Jewish people [called Gentiles], living under Roman rule. So imagine yourself there, in that context. Mark must explain Jewish traditions you see, because the readers aren’t aware. They don’t really know the Torah [books of Moses] or even the Talmud [Jewish oral tradition]. They don’t really know or understand all the religious rules of the synagogue [called the temple]. And they don’t speak Hebrew, they speak Greek. So imagine yourself a Gentile; wait, we are!

          And now imagine Jesus of Nazareth, a man of Jewish heritage, educated in Jewish law, the Torah, the Talmud, the religious practices. This Jesus knew the Pharisees and the Sadducees well. The Pharisees were the Jewish people who believed in authority from the oral law, which was their tradition of interpreting the Torah [Moses Law]. The Sadducees [often called scribes], on the other hand, only recognized Moses’ Law, the Torah. So you can see why these two groups both of the same basic religious belief system were at odds with each other. And notice that they came from Jerusalem, the big city, the religious epicenter, the temple’s resting place. They were the religious elites. But they found Jesus in the towns, in rural areas, in Galilee, far from the temple. And he was with Gentiles who knew very little about laws and religion. They were the marginalized.

          Obviously, the Pharisees and Sadducees noticed that these Gentiles were outsiders; they were different. They ate food without washing their hands properly. Ew! But it wasn’t that the Pharisees and scribes were acting like parents telling their kids to wash their hands before dinner. They were actually more concerned with tradition than they were with germs. They were religiously Gentile-phobic. Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands? they asked. This was a huge barrier between people—all this religious tradition. Jesus knew it and so he was convinced that this issue of Gentiles being unclean needed to be settled once and for all. Otherwise, this kingdom community of God idea, where all were welcomed, would not be viable.

          I’m actually really glad that I never got into a debate with Jesus. He was good. He went right to the Hebrew Scriptures, quoting Isaiah: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. The temple authorities, according to Jesus, were ignoring the commandment of God and clinging tightly to human traditions. That’s a direct reference to the Pharisees’ claim that their oral tradition was of God, just like the Torah Law. But Jesus called it mere human habit. And he brought it home by talking about the family, more specifically, mom and dad. Honor your father and your mother. A big commandment.

          And then he drops a word we don’t know and once again you and I definitely feel like clueless Gentiles. Korban. Korban was a word that meant money or assets willed to the Jerusalem temple. These korban monies could no longer be used by a family once someone made a vow of korban, promising this money to the temple; there was no way to go back on it. It didn’t matter if tragedy hit your household, if someone needed assistance, even if mom and dad were dirt poor. Korban was final. So it was a huge contradiction. Both Pharisees and scribes claimed to follow God’s commandments, and yet, how were they really honoring their father and mother if they gave all their money to the temple and refused to help their families in need?

          This statement seemed to quiet the Pharisees and scribes, because Jesus then had plenty of time to address the Gentile crowds. Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. Now the story shifts. Jesus and the religious leaders had been arguing about the body, the external, what was clean or dirty. Now Jesus talked about what was on the inside; the heart. Notice the thematic word-play. The Pharisees and scribes were religious insiders who mocked those like the Gentiles who were outsiders. The Pharisees and scribes were concerned about what was outside the body. Jesus was concerned with only the inside. Now let’s get to the heart of the matter, pun intended.

          For the ancient Hebrews, the word for heart was lev, spelled lamed-beit. The heart was the center of personality and being. As described by Jewish scholars and writers, the heart is the inner self—what it means to be human. It is intellect and rational thought. The heart is memory, emotions, determination, desire, will, and courage. The heart is completely an internal concept. What is external, on the outside, does not affect the heart. This understanding is quite different than much of the Western world’s thinking about the heart, which can often include the idea that “the devil made me do it.” That Western thinking does not exist in the majority of Biblical Jewish thought. Instead, when we as humans act, our action is motivated by our heart—not some external force causing us to be bad or good. Therefore, people have the ability to choose which impulse to follow, a dichotomy of the heart. The two sides to the heart in rabbinic understanding are yetzer hatov [good inclination] and yetzer hara [evil inclination]. But it’s important for us to understand that yetzer hara is not some demonic force that forces someone to do something bad. Instead, it is a drive towards pleasure, property, or security. Pursuing these things is not evil, but if we pursue it without limit, it can lead to evil. This idea is appears in the book of Genesis.

          All human beings, therefore, have the ability to choose. This is the basic concept of free will. In the Talmud [the Jewish oral tradition], it notes that all people are descendants of Adam. Therefore, no one can blame his/her own bad impulses on their ancestry. Everyone makes his/her own choices; everyone is responsible for those choices. You can see why this more Jewish understanding of the heart is important if we are to better understand what Jesus was teaching. In the Western world, we most often associate the brain with thought and the heart with emotion. The ancient Hebrews, however, saw the heart as the mind—including both thinking and feeling. Apply this to Deuteronomy 6:5: Love God with all your heart. This is not just an emotion, but also a thoughtful process of making decisions and acting on them.

          I’m fascinated and encouraged by such an understanding of the heart that in the American Christian church we have misunderstood, or in some cases, pushed to the side. It’s easy, you see, for us to verbally attack the Pharisees and the scribes, noting their legalistic nature and obsession with religious rules. They exclude; they marginalize others; they are hypocrites. But let’s keep in mind the story in Mark. Jesus doesn’t just criticize Pharisees and scribes; he makes a statement about human beings in general, including his disciples. We are all hypocrites—all of us. We are all legalistic; we all marginalize others with our religious rules. The question is: will we admit it and turn away from such attitudes that indeed, come from within our hearts?

          In Christian circles these days, there is a lot of focus on who belongs in or who is left out of the church. Some draw the line with certain sexual behaviors or orientations. Still others invite into their church only those who vote just like them and agree on certain political and social issues. Other churches are just fine with everybody being Anglo-Saxon; or English-only. Many churches welcome people of the same social level and leave out those who have less material wealth or a limited educational background. It’s tiresome. Really. I’m weary of all this. Thankfully, Jesus has something to say about it. All of us who think we’re church insiders who know what God’s law is and which religious rules people ought to follow—we are left on the outside. This is ironic to be sure, but it’s what Jesus taught. It’s also what Paul taught, even though many have misinterpreted much of his writings. Paul wrote in Romans 2:29: But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.

          So why do we continue to keep discriminating by the letter and neglecting the heart? Why are some out and others in? Why do we keep focusing on external rules and neglect the inward heart? The Christ teaching is that sure–we can follow doctrines, religious rules and rites, but they do us no good if we neglect the heart. Our inward self is what actually moves us to do what matters most in the world. It is our heart and not our rules that matters most to our neighbors. Yes, friends, we are all more than capable of evil, of stealing, of killing, of cheating, lying, gossiping, selfishness, envy, and cowardice. But we are also fully capable of good, compassion, love, sharing, healing, justice, truth, encouragement, generosity, gratefulness, and courage.

          What Jesus asked his disciples to do was to consider what matters most in life. Do we care more about external religious rules? Or do we care more about the internal heart? Do we care more that people see us performing pious acts so they will call us a good Christian or a religious person? Or, do we care more about being honest with ourselves and with God, claiming our decisions [good and bad] as our own, not blaming or judging others? Jesus of Nazareth made it clear: in God’s community of reconciling love, dirty hands and feet, people who cannot follow all the rules, they are welcome and accepted. The Pharisees, the scribes—they are also welcomed and accepted. The people who pray and the people who don’t know how; those who read the Bible a lot and those who are afraid to; people who marry, divorce, drink, smoke, dance badly, sing well, speak languages other than English; those who laugh and those who cry; people who have hope and those with none; kids, babies, teenagers, adults; religious and non-religious alike. This is God’s community.

          And we are invited in—even if we’ve felt like we’ve been on the outside. And we’re invited to accept responsibility for those times when we hurt someone or caused evil. And we’re encouraged to ask for forgiveness, humbly and honestly. And as broken human beings who daily struggle with our heart’s motivation, we can encounter hope in the message of Jesus. For God knows our hearts, knows what we are capable of. And this Still-Forgiving God extends compassion and mercy to us so that we can remember that we are capable of doing good in the world. This is the heart of the matter. This is the core of life. We are to listen to our hearts. We are to cultivate all that is merciful and compassionate within it. We are to recognize also its imperfections so as not to hide them. We are to love God and our neighbor by using our brains, feeling emotions, and moving our feet. What is on the inside will always bear fruit on the outside. Amen.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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