Jesus’ Higher Standard

14 Pentecost, August 30

Much has been written and preached about Jesus’ attitude to the Jewish law, most of it critical. The Reformation caused a great deal of sound and fury about law and gospel, as if there were no gospel in law and no law in gospel. The Gospel of Mark demonstrates a more nuanced approach.

The law, instituted in the Ten Commandments, underwent a continued development. During the captivity, which deprived the Israelites of a temple where sacrifice might be offered for sin, law substituted for sacrifice. Even after Israel returned from captivity and restored the temple, the law remained, developed, and became a parallel system of belief and practice. The Pharisees, founded during Jewish resistance to Greek occupation, were the major law-enforcement lobby in first-century Judaism. They were aided by lawyers, the Scribes Jesus condemned in the gospels. The idea of separation of church and state, of civil and religious law, was unknown and would not be known until the 18th century.

First reading and psalm: Song 2:8-13
Ps. 45:1-2, 7-10

Alternate: Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9Ps. 15
James 1:17-27Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Jewish law, as it related to hygiene, was rather advanced and very sensible. Kosher laws protected people from infection in an age without refrigeration. Washing hands and feet became matters of good manner, always more formidably observed than mere legal restrictions. Jesus protested when he was not afforded this simple courtesy and redirected foot washing as a symbol of mutual love.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus defended his disciples from the Scribes and Pharisees. It seems the disciples had been observed entering homes without having their hands washed. Jesus does not denounce the law. He accuses the leaders of hypocrisy: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Jesus delves deeper. He posits the idea that it is much easier to observe rituals and demand that other people comply than it is to obey the injunctions contained in the law God gave to Moses on Sinai. Jesus ticks off the basic breaches of the Ten Commandments: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Jesus draws a distinction between external and internal sins. While failure to observe hygiene may threaten one’s own safety and that of others, the really dangerous activities, threatening the individual and the community, begin in the mind and demonstrate themselves among religious people as notorious hypocrisy. The strength to resist temptation comes not from law observance but from the forgiving grace of God in Jesus, by which the Holy Spirit enables us to keep the commandments by resisting temptation and, when we fall, relying on God’s forgiving grace, rather than hiding our sins under a cloak of religious observance.

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Look It Up
Read Mark 7:1-23.

Think About It
Compare Jesus’ list of sins that begin in the mind with the Ten Commandments.

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