Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 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?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”… Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “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.”…
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Just the other morning, I sat with an elderly woman as she ate her breakfast. A recent victim of a stroke, she struggled to pull a spoon of piping hot cream of wheat to her quivering lips. With each anxious attempt, she dutifully retreated her elbow to rest on the table for fear of spilling beige mush on herself. As I reflected on her wrestled arm movement, spoon and tasteless cream of wheat, I wondered how the Pharisees would respond to the woman’s poor eating habits. But in the moment, all I could think was to offer a straw with which she could sip her morning meal.
The Pharisees peek in on Jesus’ meal with friends with repugnance. They watch the group of misfits - those without social breeding or deep religious history - eat like wild animals without respect for religious tradition or cleanliness. Although the Jewish tradition of respect for God through religious cleanliness is admirable, Jesus rebukes his hard hearted witnesses for professing love and generosity without extending it.
Too often our respectability or consideration for manners manifests itself as hypocrisy. I dislike the smell of human body odor, grow awkwardly angry when someone farts in an elevator, and abhor those who cough phlegm and other bodily liquids in my presence. In fact Jesus’ command rebukes me as well. Those things we perceive as disrespect or improper behavior do not define a person. Likewise, those things we esteem as proper etiquette, like well groomed hair, proper use of fork and knife, and washing one’s hands, does not define a person either. “But the things that come out are what defile” or define.
As the woman labored with her brownish liquid of a breakfast, she spilled paste on her gown and covered her mouth with the sticky substance as it slipped from her lips. In our brief encounter it was not the manner of her eating habits that concerned me, but the heart of her struggle with life and love. Rather than retreating like the Pharisees to judge, Jesus instructs us to look past the outward appearance and into the heart of the person in order to provide deep care. Over breakfast, I learned respect and dignity come from sitting alongside the messy eaters, the poorly kept and the socially awkward in order to offer grace and receive grace from one another.