Don’t confuse your priorities

Peter Seal, 2 September 2018

James 1: 17–27; Mark 7: 1–8, 14–15, 21–23

In both of today’s Bible passages a loving figure approaches with a gift and an invitation.

From the epistle of James we hear how a loving God comes with, or you could say ‘showers us with’, gifts. These include the gift of the sacred word, and invite a response from the reader and hearer.

We are to be the channels for a transcendent virtue finding its way through us. All this is set within the context of God described as ‘the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’.

We are to be the channels for a transcendent virtue finding its way through us.

This is comforting, given the shadows that cast themselves across and within our lives. In God there is no variation. God is forever unchanging. But this does not mean unfeeling …

At times much of life can feel like an endless flood of change. As someone put it: we search for firm ground in a heaving landscape.

James would have us understand that God’s purpose is to ‘give us birth by word of truth’. And then comes hard-hitting advice: ‘Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness’.

James continues with a powerful image. Don’t be like those who hear the word of God and fail to act on it. ‘They are like those who look at themselves in a mirror … and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.’

Those who hear God’s word, i.e. folk like us, are called to be a kind of first fruits. James is very clear: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God … is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress’.

And so to the passage from St Mark. Jesus and the 12 disciples are sharing a meal. Others gather around, drawn by Jesus’ magnetic personality. Among those who assemble are the Pharisees and scribes. They notice that some of the disciples are eating without having washed their hands. They question Jesus about this: ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’

What Jesus is doing by his response is challenging them to move from the restriction of law to the freedom of his grace and call. Jesus is suggesting that they’ve confused their priorities. It seems that the Pharisees have added their own regulations to the ‘commandment of God’.

Jesus’ message is: it’s not your hands that need cleaning, but your hearts. Jesus does not mince his words; he describes the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites and quotes Isaiah to describe the wayward state of their hearts. Isaiah wrote: ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’.

Jesus then gathers the crowd together and, as it were, casting his eyes around, says: ‘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’.

To put all this another way: we cannot blame life’s shadowy elements on a source outside ourselves. To do so is to project the shadow within us onto others around us, with dire and sometimes terrible consequences.

We cannot blame life’s shadowy elements on a source outside ourselves … understanding this will transform our living.

Jesus is saying something like this, ‘Come with me and recognise that the most common source of both goodness and evil is within yourself. Understanding this will transform your living because you will no longer be tyrannised by externalities. You will be able to get on with living life joyously.’