"So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

August 30, 2021, Words By: Kristy Humphreys, Image By: Karen Andersen

Made Flesh

I confess, as a “Type A” personality and an Enneagram 1, I love rules. There is something supremely satisfying about knowing exactly what the expectations are, and being able to meet them. Throughout my life, I’ve found comfort in handbooks, syllabi, and checklists.

As the uptight accountant Angela from “The Office” once said, without a hint of irony, “I actually look forward to performance reviews…I really enjoy being judged. I believe I hold up very well to even severe scrutiny.” 

Oh boy. It’s a problem. There’s nothing wrong with rules, per se. But I often find my identity in fulfilling them, and that’s when my cringey, self-righteous inner-Angela comes out of hiding. 

So, when I read this week’s gospel lectionary, I can see myself quite well in the Pharisees. “What do you mean they’re not washing their hands? Don’t they know what the rules are? What kind of person knows the rules and ignores them?” 

It turns out, Jesus is. Once again, he takes the system and turns it upside down, blowing up societies’ rubric for what makes somebody a good person. 

“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Jesus knows, and I believe we also intuitively know, that what comes from the inside is really important. I can follow all the rules I want, but at the end of the day, if my actions, even my rule-following, are coming from a place of scarcity, rivalry, or violence against my neighbor, then I’m still not seeing through the eyes of Jesus. 

This goes beyond my own sense of security and self-judgment. I’m paying attention to how the Pharisees move so quickly from self-righteous to judgmental, granting themselves the authority to deem others as “defiled.” 

How often do we do this, too? After all, society is made up of formal and informal groups that have their own rules about what makes somebody “good,” even if they don’t use that exact language. Whether you’re judging someone for using the social safety net, or because they don’t recycle enough, it’s hard not to find ourselves in the Pharisees’ shoes.   

So What Now?

At Street Psalms, each week we post a weekly liturgy on Instagram called The Human Becoming.  And we always ask the same question of the gospel lectionary text: “How is this text good news for the most vulnerable in our communities, and for our most vulnerable selves?” 

This question is helping me dig out of my Pharisaic hole. 

For Our Most Vulnerable Selves

I think the good news for my vulnerable self (and maybe yours too) is that Jesus was never about following the rules perfectly. In fact, we’re all already forgiven, before we even realize it. Loving God and following Jesus never included looking the part. He exposed that system of self-righteousness when he rose from the dead and said, “Peace be with you” to the very ones that abandoned him. 

So if it’s not about finding my identity in fulfilling the rules, the pressure is off. Since I’m not vying for God’s affection and forgiveness, I’m actually free to find my identity in Jesus, the one who isn’t judging me. Paradoxically, that freedom makes me more likely to reflect God’s boundless mercy and love, and makes me much more receptive when God exposes my imperfect intentions. 
For The Most Vulnerable In Our Communities

At a communal level, Jesus exposes the imperfections within the system of rules itself. The biblical mandate for hand washing was meant for priests before approaching the altar (Exodus 30:17-21). How did it become a rule that judged hungry lay people for eating a meal? 

The reality is that rules can be good when they protect the weak from the strong. But all too often they do the opposite, “protecting privilege and maintaining inequality. These are the boundaries that Jesus consistently challenged.” (Chad Meyers, Chapter 9, “Say to This Mountain” Mark’s Story of Discipleship)

For the marginalized, Jesus’ stance validates an everyday experience with rules gone awry. And for everyone, it’s a reminder that the judgment of a corrupt system should never be confused with God’s judgment. 

For our own sake, and for the sake of our communities, may we all hear the good news in our text today.

Dwelling Among Us

“How is this text good news for the most vulnerable in our communities, and for our most vulnerable selves?” 

About The Author

Kristy Humphreys