From Hand Washing to #SyrophoenicianLivesMatter: Mark 7

As human beings we have an annoying trait of complicating what God instructs us to do. This is where Mark 7 begins, but not where it ends. At the start of the chapter it is the Pharisees who are complicating God’s instruction. In fact, Jesus will go on to explain they are doing something even worse.

Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus faces hostility from the religious leaders. It was not just Jesus that the leaders had it in for, Israel had a long tradition of prophets who criticised the status quo and thereby the leaders. In Jesus’ time it was still the case. Many people would announce a new teaching, usually centred on the need for political change. Then they set out to bring truth to power. Some, like Jesus, gave everything in the attempt.

Here, the Pharisees have taken some of God’s instruction (torah) and made an extra burden of tradition to go on top. The Law (torah) required priests to ritually clean their hands. This was an act of grace as it reminded them that when dealing with the Holy God of Israel a clean heart is essential.

Please note that this is not about hand hygiene—though this is the centre of our daily lives at present. As an aside, we might want to have a word with Jesus and his disciples on this count.

The accusation that the disciples have not washed their hands, is a claim that they have not obeyed the extra rules made by the Elders. These rules had been added as a burden on everyone. When you are travelling doing itinerant ministry, is not feasible to carry the necessary dedicated washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles. And Mark’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus liked his disciples to travel light.

Jesus, as a rabbi, is responsible for his disciple’s actions. At this level, the Pharisees are justified in bringing the matter to Jesus. The problem with their case is, however, twofold. Firstly, their motives are dubious. This, however, is not the point that Jesus takes up with them. The second issue is the key one. By focusing on man-made traditions these become a distraction from God himself.

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13:

‘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.’

We must not get self-righteous at this point by spotting what we do without thinking. In my own Baptist tradition, the trinity of words: tradition, doctrine, and ritual are often unspoken and these matters judged as peripheral. We might read what Jesus says about human traditions and then go further than Jesus does.

In quoting from Isaiah, God-sanctioned tradition, Jesus is primarily pointing out that God desires true worship. He wants hearts that are set on him. At the same time, he affirms that doctrine and ritual still have a place. In the New Testament, the disciples and Jesus’ brother, James, affirm both doctrine and ritual. In the case of ritual, we still have cleansing effected baptism, we have Christ’s sacrifice proclaimed in bread and wine, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit through anointing with oil. All these are mandated by Jesus and/or the testimony of the New Testament.

Our Christian tradition makes it easier to see some things than others. Let us not abandon other commandments of God. And Let us remember that working these out requires a framework of tradition, doctrine and ritual.

Things get worse for the Pharisees as Jesus spells out why he has quoted Isaiah. He suggests that their specific traditions get in the way of God’s commands. He mentions the idea of ‘corban‘ in which something could be set apart for God. The specific issues seem to be that some where giving land and wealth, made ‘corban‘, to the religious leaders. In doing so, some then deprived their parents of the support that was their due in old age, according to the Law.

Then Jesus gets to the revolutionary bit. Jesus’s comments about the human heart, our insides, our outsides, and purity is both great teaching, spells out a bigger problem—a problem for everyone.

With reference to our basic bodily functions, Jesus explains that what we eat cannot make us unclean. This even transforms some of the commandments of the Law. This is a trajectory that enables God’s people to eat screech owl and even pig should they wish to. The repercussions of this took years to work out after Jesus death hence the editorial note in verse 19.

The counterpoint to this is that we know a person’s heart by their fruit. There is that horrible list: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Jesus and the Pharisees are on common ground with this list. They can also agree on its root cause.

Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on ample evidence from the Scriptures that the heart is the underlying problem:

  1. God judges people on the basis of their heart, ‘for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7, NRSV).
  2. The law acknowledges the problem of the uncircumcised heart (Leviticus 26:41).
  3. Proverbs 20:9 puts the issue as a rhetorical question: “Who can say, “I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin”?”

Why does he tell them what they already know? The problem is that human effort, via traditions, cannot deal with the sinful heart that we each have. Not even God’s commandments can do this. They might be a helpful bandage or provide palliative care, but they do not deal with a sinful heart. This is a bigger problem than ritual impurity over the lack of hand-washing.

Jesus does not address the problem in this encounter with the Pharisees. Remarkably in the next episode in Mark’s gospel it is a Syrophoenician women—yes, a Gentile—that perceives that Jesus is the at the centre of a game changing solution to this conundrum.

Here we enter someone’s home, the details are left out by Mark. Presumably, this is a house where Jesus has been able to get peace and quiet previously—a safe house. But his effort to get some downtime has not worked. A Syrophoenician woman gate-crashes his rest. This is a bold and desperate move; Gentiles don’t barge into Jewish homes to address a Jewish Rabbi.

It is the hope that Jesus can work a miracle that has driven her to do the unthinkable. She begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her absent daughter, left suffering at home. So far so good, our sensibilities have not been ruffled even if those of polite Jewish society have.

And then we wake up because our Lord and Saviour, our role model for life, the sinless one, the man who has just preached that we are all judged by what comes from our mouths, makes what could be understood as a racial slur. Jesus implies the common label of Gentiles as dogs in what he says to his woman. So offensive is this episode that Luke misses it out of his gospel written to a Gentile audience. 

In this tricky saying, Jesus explains that his ministry has been essentially to the Jews, and only in passing to the Gentiles. In this way, Jesus’ ministry is food for the children of Israel, and not food for Gentiles.

Are you feeling uncomfortable? Are we going to have to have take down any statues of Jesus and crosses that commemorate his death and resurrection, in a #SyrophoencianLivesMatter rampage? Is Jesus being racist?

We will of course never know Jesus’ tone, his demeanour, the possible twinkle in his eye when he said these words. What we do know is that despite alluding to the labelling of Gentiles as dogs, standard practice in his culture, his statement elicits the most remarkable response from this woman:

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In this brief exchange and based on the knowledge of Jesus that brought her to a strange Jewish house, she has understood what the Pharisees with all their hand-wringing and hand-washing have missed. She has seen that Jesus’ work starts with Jews but is the hope of all humanity. She is pleading that this might begin right here and right now with her daughter. Her faith and courage are rewarded:

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

This remarkable new understanding of Jesus’ work is the start of Mark’s Gospel revealing that he in his deeds and his person he will address the bigger problem of the heart. Both Jew and Gentile will have the possibility of a circumcised heart as Leviticus puts it.

Reading the Psalter with Captain America

Yes, an odd title to be sure. It was last summer that I found myself reflecting on the character Captain America in the films collectively known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. I know these films well, in part due to my previous publication on the fictional material vibranium [1]. In my moment of reflection I wondered at the similarities between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and the psalmist. This started simply with the thought that both are often judged harshly because of a thirst for righteousness that is all too easily misunderstood as arrogance. Today some readers of the Psalter react negatively to Psalm 1’s call to meditate on God’s torah or instruction. Due to a misunderstanding of torah and its relationship to righteousness as framed in the Bible. This is especially problematic given Psalm 1’s hermeneutical importance at the opening of the Psalter [2] and the psalmist’s ongoing self-understanding as being righteous before God.

Shield

This led to significant further reflection that culminated in a paper. This paper can be downloaded below. Whilst the paper will hopefully interest some readers of this blog (please add a comment below if this proves to be the case) it turned out ill-suited for more formal publication. Importantly for me it has seeded something bigger. It has galvanised some ideas for a book on the Psalter that I have been grappling with for around 5 years, or so. I hope to have more news about this later in 2019.

For now I hope some readers might persevere and see what can happen when we read the Psalter with Captain America. Please click on the text below to download the paper as a pdf.

Rereading the Psalter with Captain America 23rd March 2019 PsalterMark

 

References

  1. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Is it a Ceramic? Is it Graphene? No it’s Vibranium’ pp.93‒110 in The Secret Science of Superheroes (Eds: M. Lorch and A. Miah), London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2017.
  2. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (3), 246‒262, 2013.

 

V is for Vengeance

A Vengeful People

The Hebrew Bible is often said to be a book of violence and vengeance. The question is then asked as to how an attitude of vengeance can fit with an ethic of love? This post will look at two specific texts which helpfully crystallise what for some people seems to be genuine problem. One of these texts is from the torah, the other is poetic and from the Writings:

 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. . .”

Exodus 21:22‒25 (NIV)

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:8‒9 (NIV)

We shall look at each of these texts in turn. The aim of this short post is to offer a pointer as to how these texts might not be so out of kilter with our modern sensibilities as is often supposed.

Seeing beyond an eye-for-an-eye

The passage from Exodus 21 is not unique within the Hebrew Bible. Both Leviticus 24:18‒20 and Deuteronomy 19:21 contain the same retaliatory idea. This principle is often termed the lex talionis which literally means law of retaliation. There is no doubting the question that this principle gives rise to. Many of the concerns, however, can quickly be alleviated by considering the context of this legal literature:

  1. At this time in the Ancient Near-East the sorts of issues for which this law was intended could give rise to civil strife because of disproportionate retaliation. In this way some people recognise the lex talionis as limiting the meeting out of justice, i.e. focusing on like-for-like rather than escalation into a feud.
  2. Also in this period, as in so many others, the richer more powerful classes could often escape justice. In other legal codes, such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, similar laws are aimed at protecting those of inferior social standing [1]. That this legislation might especially relate to slaves and their masters in the torah is seen by the content of Exodus 21:26‒27 which explains that a slave must be set free if they lose an eye or a tooth.
  3. One of the dynamics of law in the Hebrew Bible is that like all law it is subject to change. We would not see UK law of, say, 1949 being a once for all finished law. Neither should what we have preserved in the torah be seen as a singular finished article.

None of these three points deals with all the questions we might have about the lex talionis and the ethic of love. The goal has been to show that the text is not either as stark or as simple as it first appears. As Beaton [2] says:

. . . regardless of which interpretation one finds most convincing, these explanations are unified by their endorsement of the principle of proportionality: the talion was about restraint, not vengeance.

On Babies and Rocks

Beatitudes are sometimes referred to as beautiful attitudes. Notwithstanding this unhelpful definition, no one can rightly claim that wanting real babies to be dashed against actual rocks is anything like a beautiful attitude. So why does such an ugly beatitude have a place in the Hebrew Bible?

The context of Psalm 137 is made very clear in its opening verses. These words were made famous by Boney M.’s song Rivers of Babylon. At this time, as we saw in ‘E is for Exile’ and ‘L is for Lamentations’, the nation of Judah had been devastated by war, Jerusalem had been sacked and the people deported into Exile. Remembering this context and noting that Psalm 137 is poetry can go some way to lessening the shock of these words. This is not a legal text which says how justice should be done, although given the fate of many women and children in Jerusalem it might appear to echo a crude wish for the application of a lex talionis. But we still have a big question: why is it appropriate to use poetry and song to articulate vengeance?

A good starting point is to observe that articulating emotion in poetry and song is an incredibly natural thing to do. At the same time we can observe that the participation in poetry and song, whether reading, reciting, hearing or singing, does not have to result in carrying out violence or even condoning it in a rational conversation. The psalms of the Hebrew Bible often deal with emotion and in many cases this can be negative emotion such as a desire for vengeance. Interestingly the language used; whilst unguarded in its frankness tends to leave the matter with God. Perhaps the need for candour with God and the need to entrust our foes to him are an emotional necessity ahead of loving our neighbour?

References

  1. Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1974.
  2. James Daniel Beaton. ‘Find Justice in Ancient Israelite Law: A Survey of the Legal System of the Israelites during the Post-Exodus, Pre-Exilic Period’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 41.2, 139‒158, 2016.

T is for Torah

The Hebrew word torah is frequently translated as law or The Law, meaning the Pentateuch. In Western culture law does not tend to have a semantic range which is entirely positive. Most people in stable countries are grateful to live in a society governed by the rule of law. In contrast, however, legalism, lawyers and judgement all have negative connotations. When we encounter the word law translating torah, as it does in so many translations, we can often think of a stereotype which eclipses the genuine nuance that the word torah has in Hebrew. The problem is especially acute for many Christian readers who may well be oblivious to the problem.

Many Christians will have heard repeated stark contrasts drawn between the freedom and grace of Christ contrasted with the rigid legalism of the Pharisees. Whilst the gospels abound with stories of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, a shrill opposition is not what the gospels reveal. The problem is that these stories are read from an ingrained perspective which originated in the Reformation. Luther, in reacting against the abuses of the Church, read into the Pharisees’ position all that he despised in the Church of his day. Read with an open mind the gospels reveal a Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees but also a Jesus who knows torah (cf. Matthew 4:1‒11) and speaks positively about it (Matthew 5:17‒20).

Returning to the Hebrew Bible we would do well to not read the word law in a negative sense and to also note that the literal meaning of torah is ‘instruction’, ‘teaching’ and ‘guidance’. We are likely to bring less baggage to the text with the word instruction. Such teaching and guidance takes many forms and sometimes this is law, i.e. written instruction which has some element of authority associated with it. When seen as instruction, teaching and guidance from God, even when encompassing law, a richer, thicker and more positive view is possible.

That the Hebrew Bible sees torah as positive is evident throughout. For example we read:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law
[=torah] of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law
[=torah] day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

Psalm 1:1‒3 (NIV)

It is very likely here that the concept of torah or instruction is being deliberately extended from the first five books of the Hebrew Bible the torah to the five books of the Psalms.

It is interesting to note that a similar positive exhortation opens the Former Prophets too:

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law [=torah] my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law [=torah] always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

Joshua 1:7‒8 (NIV)

To be fair there is a sense in which law keeping is an important, indeed central, part of the Hebrew Bible. The above verses are picking up where Deuteronomy left of with its call to obedience so that covenant blessings would be maintained. A healthy respect for God’s instruction is to be expected if God is God. This does not have to equate to dry legalism. Readers are encouraged to read the Hebrew Bible and come to their own views as to what extent either Pharisaical Judaism, Early Christianity, contemporary Judaism or modern Christianity embody the serious intent and delight abounding in Yahweh’s torah.