The scene we have just heard from Mark, I confess, appeals upon first reading to my lower nature—my unreflective sense of self-righteousness, my tendency to guard against anything alien or uncomfortable, my own carefully guarded picture of reality. And of course, a second reading always reveals to me the irony of this shallow appeal. For it is too easy to scorn the figures of the scribes and Pharisees in this scene. So easy, in fact, that we should be alert: the author of Mark is pouring out a necessary medicinal draught for us—we, the religious of our own time. While its taste may be bitter to the palette, we do well to drink all of it down, and slowly. For I believe Mark intends us to see our own reflection in this brew. That which we are easily tempted to deride about the scribes and Pharisees in this encounter may well be the very same hops and malt fermenting away in our own corporate body.
Jesus and his disciples have been healing throughout Gennesaret when a group of scribes and Pharisees confront him and his disciples, assumptions in tow, and begin to question the veracity and authenticity of their faith. Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands? What follows from Jesus is a firm rebuke of the inconsistencies in the practices so dearly observed by the Pharisaical community. Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother;’ and ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But if you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is [an offering to God]’—then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And to add just a little salt the wound, he continues, And you do many things like this.’
Jesus clearly knows how to engage with the sophisticated traditions and lexicon by which the Pharisees seek to live. There is nothing laissez faire about this Galilean preachers’ approach, and he recognizes that the gift of the Law is not an end in itself. He knows that as people of faith, hungry to know God’s presence and provision for us, we easily turn the free space offered to us by God into a patchwork of further subdivisions and contrived legality.
When I first claimed Christianity as part of my identity in my early twenties, I was in absolute awe of the richness of Anglican worship. Its rich symbolic universe, the inspiring spaces in which such worship occurred, a faith that didn’t seem to shun but indeed celebrated the intellectual life, and above all a corpus of musical heritage that drew me into previously unknown regions of depth, honesty, truth, and beauty. Those verses we heard from Psalm 84 became real for me: How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. / The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; * by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.
Yet not more than three months into my sweet adoration of and participation in this tradition I found out it did not quite speak with such force or authority for everyone. One evening at a restaurant before a romantic interest, I poured out my praise and admiration for the liturgical life at St. Mark’s Cathedral, my then home church. With an air of dismissal I had neither expected nor understood, he said, “I don’t understand all you Episcopalians and Catholics and the like. All this music and theatrics and superstition! For what? No, real worship is simple, bible-based, quiet.”
An argument, of course, ensued. We were both making assumptions about the other’s faith based on the ways we worshipped. I could not understand how this man could encounter God without movement, color, song, and beauty, much less without any practices to connect him to the historic life of the church. He, I suspect, could not understand how I could encounter God through the din of hymns and anthems, smoke and processions, Sunday finery and Sherry Hour. We both felt the other had deprived themselves of something real and substantive; neither of us could recognize the seeds of God’s word at work in both charisms. For we were not focused on the actual object of worship, that is, God, but on our own subjective experiences of liturgical life, our own personal preferences, our own inherited human traditions. We had both made idols out of our respective inheritance. While I cannot speak for him, in retrospect it is clear I was more concerned with the holiness of beauty than with the beauty of holiness.
As Jesus admonishes this group of religious gatekeepers in the seventh chapter of Mark, so we must anticipate the experience of our own admonishment as members of religious communities. As churches, we are too often tempted to claim more than we are permitted, and can thereby become the pretended gatekeepers of our own time. It is easy to grasp at the boundaries we have been given to help us understand ourselves and our place in God’s sight; things like genuflecting, fasting, calendars, hymnals, and even style. While all good gifts in themselves, once we grasp on to them and claim them as our ground of being, we deny the True Ground to which they were only designed to point.
To be sure, Jesus has not come to take these things away from us. But he has come to reorient our relationship to them. He has come to remind us that God does not deal with sin, failure, or even death the way we do, would, or could. He reveals a God who once saved a lowly people from a mighty empire by leading them through the Red Sea. A God who did not ask them to earn their salvation, but instead delivered them by grace before issuing even one commandment. A God who comes to and rescues us not because of our goodness, virtue, or anything we can do for God, but because of His love and our need.
So my fellow religious—lay, ordained, cloistered or dispersed, fallen away, curious, devoted or doubtful—remember the reflection Mark has offered us in this scene, and let us mercifully hold one another up. We are not going to shed our assumptions about the faith of others over night. But if we are truthful and honest with one another, Christ will show us the true beauty of the holiness at work for the salvation of all of God’s children.
 Mark 7:5
 Mark 7:10-12
 Psalm 84:1-2