Readings: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
There’s an American idiom that you may have heard of, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. It’s basically something that might be said to someone in order to tell them not to worry about things that are not important. It’s actually not a bad thing to suggest, because sometimes we worry about getting the small things sorted out and forget to look at the bigger picture. So are the small things unimportant?
The bigger picture as far as Jesus was concerned was teaching people what their attitude needed to be in relation to God, not whether they had dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘T’s on their membership application to the Christian faith.
In this section of Mark’s gospel people are flooding to him – he has just fed the five thousand, had a brief respite in prayer; and then walked out to his disciples in their boat, when they were fighting against an adverse wind, to calm the weather and their fears. On landing he has been immediately recognised and word has spread and people are rushing about the region, bringing to him their sick, begging for and being granted healing.
Now in this passage, the Pharisees and scribes, who had no doubt been sent out from Jerusalem to gather evidence against him are interrupting a well-deserved meal break to tell him that he’s breaking Jewish law by eating with unwashed hands. No wonder he decides to tell them as it really is! ‘Stop sweating the small stuff!’
To the Jews, and in particular the Pharisees, however, the small stuff was important. They believed that, alongside the written Torah, there existed another body of oral laws, interpretations and traditions transmitted by God to Moses orally and then memorised. In fact there are 613 statutes stated in the Halakhah, or Jewish Law, most of which are derived from the Torah’s books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy … never easy reads!… but some are laws that have been enacted by the rabbis, who have interpreted the Torah over time.
A few of them are related to particular groups of people such as the Nazarites, whilst a large proportion of the others relate to sacrifices and offerings which can only be made in the Temple, which no longer exists. There are some that sound rather quaint to our ears, such as ‘not to make a bald spot in mourning’ or ‘not to eat worms found in fruit once they have left the fruit’… presumably it’s okay to eat them whilst they are still in the fruit then! But there are some that are abhorrent… that a rapist must marry his victim if she is unwed and is never allowed to divorce her. Certainly tells us a lot about the status of women if nothing else.
The laws to which Mark was referring to, and which he explained in some detail to his mainly Gentile audience, are part of the Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws concerning kosher foods and its preparation and handling, and were part of a highly complex and developed system of purity regulations. For orthodox Jews even today they throw up problems, such as how you are going to use a dishwasher for both meat and dairy utensils in a kosher home. Still sweating the small stuff!
For many modern non-orthodox Jews, however, they believe that the laws of kashrut are simply primitive health regulations that have become obsolete and that the legalistic aspect of traditional Judaism reduces religion to a set of rituals devoid of spirituality, which was not the intention of Halakhah, which can be translated better as ‘the path that one walks’. So they no longer see the need to sweat the small stuff, perhaps having been persuaded by changes in society that these laws are no longer important or relevant to their faith.
However, back in first century Palestine, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, in that by interpreting and applying scripture in this way they are only honouring God with what they say rather than what they do. His kingdom message has nothing to do with how and what you eat, that is not what will stop you becoming pure. Rather the challenge of the gospel is much more a challenge of the heart. He is insisting that good and bad external and physical actions come from internal and spiritual sources, and that it is human motivation that is the real problem.
His list of evil intentions seem full on, and perhaps it is easy for us to glance at the list and feel comfortable with the fact that on the whole we’re fairly sure we haven’t indulged in many of them, especially the biggies like fornication, murder or adultery. Yet can we be quite sure that in some small way we haven’t practiced theft… the pen ‘borrowed’ from work and never taken back; or licentiousness… the extra packets of cakes or food bought which never got eaten and which had to be thrown away; or slander… the sarcastic insult offered veiled with a smile? What about envy, pride or avarice?
Yes, we might say, but that’s only the small stuff… even so, Jesus doesn’t seem to rank them in order of importance; they are all equally said to be possible evil intentions that are present in and come from the human heart.
He also at this stage doesn’t seem to offer a solution as to what we can to do to either avoid or resolve this problem, we are simply left to infer it… of course later on and with our gift of hindsight we do know what the solution will be, through Christ’s ultimate revelation of the kingdom. However, our reading from the letter of James, does give us something concrete to act upon. It tells us that rather than drawing from our hearts those things that make us sordid that we should listen to that part of us that God has already placed within us.
We are to be quick to listen so that we can exercise self-control and know what the right thing to do is; take time to consider what the effect of our words might be on others so that we act with kindness; to be patient so that our actions are those of love rather than hate.
Christians are called to be above reproach and yet we are only too well aware that we so often fall short. But despite this we can’t casually set aside bits of scripture that we don’t like or understand. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to justify our actions because society around us doesn’t seem to worry about the small stuff; that’s how we become tainted by the world.
Yes, we make mistakes and get it wrong… yes we can seek forgiveness… and yes we will be forgiven; but we need to take an honest look at how we behave and change the things that make us follow human traditions rather than being doers of the word.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets;
I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’. Matthew 5:17
The important thing is that Jesus came not to set aside the law but to fulfil it. The scriptures were not necessarily irrelevant then or now. They act as signposts to the reality that was Jesus. Everything that they were getting at reached a climax in Jesus Christ, and from then on everything was different. He became the perfect law, the law of liberty. So by keeping his law we can constantly remind ourselves of our relationship with the divine so that it becomes an integral part of our existence.
The Pharisees were more concerned that the rules were followed and that keeping the laws was more important than how people were treated. Jesus was more concerned with how we treat others; that we were love God and our neighbours as ourselves, because on those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Should we sweat the small stuff?… I’ll let you decide.