Saturday, August 29, 2015

Custom or Character? reflecting on Mark

I find this a very difficult text to engage with and will welcome thoughts as I work with what is still something of a draft.

Reading: John 7:1-23

On this last Sunday in August we are literally on the cusp of Spring and something of that season breathes through the readings set for today: one senses a fullness of life, a richness.  

We hear it in the rich call upon the senses in the Song of Solomon and in the reminder in the epistle of James that God is the source of all abundance and generosity: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

In the gospel Mark appears to support this generous and expansive frame by showing us a Jesus who resists the Pharisees’ insistence on rituals of washing for hands, cups and plates as a foundation for spirituality and righteousness before God – instead he insists that righteousness is a matter of the heart – the externals don’t matter.  This is a Jesus who sounds rather modern, contemporary – everything is fine so long as your heart is in the right place!

There are some questions that come to mind as I read this passage. 

First, if Jesus said everything as Mark presents it and did indeed declare ‘all foods clean’ why is it that in Acts and elsewhere – as in Romans – we find food disputes such a feature in the early church without any reference to Jesus having made a decisive statement on the matter?  Did Jesus really say what Mark claims or has Mark presented Jesus in this way because of the tensions the church faced in its mission to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish world?

Second, this passage presents a hostile attitude to the Old Testament and to Jewish customs.  In Matthew and Luke that is not at all what Jesus says: i.e. not a jot or stroke is to be called into question (Matt 5:17-18; Luke 16:17).

Third, the Jewish attitude to the purity laws was probably far more complex than Mark implies and it is highly doubtful that Jesus disagreed with all Jewish groups or even with all Pharisees.

So, as we read this gospel and feel the presence of a redactor who is managing and reshaping complex materials, possibly with a particular situation in mind, we too may reflect on how this text, ancient and intransigent, can still speak to us.

The Pharisees as presented by Mark, are not totally alien to us.  In the story of the Church in New Zealand we have a history that shows how behaviour has been used to determine someone’s righteousness before God.  For example the strictness with which Sabbath observance was once regarded and the relentless pharisaism it imposed – for many that defined what Christianity was about.  Closely attending that attitude went a suspicion of the arts – the theatre especially; of dancing and of alcohol.   Sexual behaviour was an especially rich area for prohibition, and some will still remember contention over how we treated divorced persons in our church and the distress many felt.

Of course we might say but surely that is all different now?  We and the church have moved on from being so prohibitive.  I think that is true but there is still a palpable sense of pressure that surfaces within our church when some aspects of behaviour are encountered.  For instance the resistance to the blessing of GLBT relationships is such and there are Anglican communities that have pulled out from our church in response to that issue.

So it may be that this particular gospel holds up a mirror to us of the pressures we encounter within our faith today.  Is there in Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ words an inherent question to us as to how we view our world and one another?  Are there clear boundaries and how do we determine where they are?

What about this proposition: that Mark shows us a Jesus who is not impressed by outward conformity but attentive to the character of the person?

Does that approach to the gospel this morning offer a generosity and fruitfulness that surprises us or does it feel uncomfortably open?   What are the questions and issues that this raises for you?  I look forward to your thoughts.

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