Read Mark 7:14-23
Do you know what it's like to feel so strongly about not doing something that you'd die before being forced into it? Is anything in this world so bad that it' s worth dying to avoid. We think of the virtue of being prepared to die for someone you love - greater love has no man, we are told in the bible. But can it also be true of the opposite?
Well, if we travel back in time to when the book of Leviticus was written, we find in the 11th chapter a list of animals that are unclean and unfit for eating. Fine in itself, you might think, possibly part of a sensible diet laid down for the Jews by a caring God. Let's face it, lots of people avoid certain types of foods today, for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with losing weight or keeping the Cholesterol down, sometimes to do with conscience and a desire that no animal should suffer in order that we should enjoy their flesh.
But would you die rather than have butter on your bread, or ham with your salad?
Well, how seriously the rules laid down in Leviticus were followed by the Jews can be gauged by stories contained in the books of Maccabees - some of the apocryphal books which some bibles include and others don't. At that time the Syrian king was determined to destroy the Jewish faith once and for all, and he chose a very straightforward way of doing this. He ordered them to eat pork.
'Yet there were many in Israel who stood firm and found the courage to refuse unclean food. They chose death rather than contamination by such fare or profanation of the holy covenant, and they were executed. It was a truly dreadful retribution that visited Israel.'
And again in fourth Maccabees there is a story of a widow and her seven sons. It was demanded that they should eat pig's flesh. They refused. The first had his tongue cut out, the ends of his limbs cut off; and then he was roasted alive in a pan. You don't want to know what happened to the rest.
These perfectly sane and respectable people- fervent in their faith, and God fearing - would rather suffer torture and death rather than break a dietary rule.
I labor the point slightly because of the importance of the statement that Jesus made in the passage from Mark's gospel that we heard. It may not seem so now, but when it was made this was probably the most revolutionary passage in the New Testament.
What did he say?
'Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.'
What Jesus is saying is that 'things' cannot be either clean or unclean in any real religious sense of the word. Only people can become unclean, through their own actions which are the product of their heart. The Jews had a whole system of things which were either 'clean' or 'unclean'. With this one sweeping pronouncement Jesus declared the whole thing irrelevant.
Can you see how this must have upset the religious leaders? And what about your average Jew, what was he or she going to make of such a statement?
Jesus then goes on to justify his pronouncement, by listing all the terrible things that come out of a person and make him or her 'unclean', and it's a very familiar list which is as relevant now as it was then.
Evil thoughts. Sexual immorality. Theft. Murder. Adultery. Greed. Malice. Deceit. Lewdness. Envy. Slander. Arrogance and folly.
Jesus is saying to the people 'Look at yourselves. You spend all your time worrying about what you can and can't do, following rules and laws to the letter, and yet look at the state that society has got itself into. Despite all this religiosity and outward show of faith, what others see when they look at you is anything but good.
We of course are not troubled by such strict rules about what we should or shouldn't eat, and I doubt very much whether any of us would be prepared to die for most of our principles. But we are assailed by things that cause us occasional pain and distress - even TV soaps contain much of that list that Jesus mentioned, and much of the output on all television channels contain scenes of a sexual nature, or gratuitous violence. We worry as well about what our children watch on the TV or read in so-called teenage magazines.
But these things in themselves, if we carry Jesus' message to the modern day, are not 'unclean' in a religious sense of the word. It's what happens to them once they enter the body, and more especially the heart. By this Jesus means more than just dwelling on things in our mind, it's when we start turning thoughts into action.
How many times have we heard of a teenager's antisocial actions being explained away as a result of watching too many violent movies, or a rapist complaining that his life has been blighted because of exposure to pornography. Whatever the psychologists might say, it seems logical to take the view that these activities can become obsessive to the point where they affect a person's actions.
What did Jesus say?
It's not so much what goes in, as what comes out of a person that makes them 'unclean' And what comes out are the actions that have their root in our heart, not just in the mind.
We have it within us to say no, in two ways. We can say 'no' to the source of the problem, vet every program, book or magazine that our families are exposed to - try and minimize the chances of coming into contact with 'the world' if you like. But we'd have to live in an igloo at the North Pole to be sure. And what an oppressive world we'd live in as well - the fear of something evil slipping through.
Or we can live our lives responsibly, accepting that we're going to be exposed to various things that we'd rather not be, but putting them to one side and concentrating instead on the more important things in life.
My computer has something called a recycle bin on the screen. It's where the bits and pieces of files that I don't want, the rubbish that collects on my hard disc, can be placed and then neatly disposed of.
I think we all need something similar in our lives. We need to understand that we do run the risk of being 'contaminated' if you like, by the world. But we have it within us to sort the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff. And if we struggle with all that we're exposed to, if we find our lives and our actions falling short of the high standard that our faith demands then we have one who is always willing to help - to look into our hearts and expose that which is causing us to stumble.
We have a savior who came to release mankind from bondage - from bondage to the law, bondage to sin, and bondage to fear. All he asks is that we take him at his word.
The Jews that Jesus was talking to were in bondage to the law. They were sincere, to the point where they would gladly give their lives rather than break a law, but it was bondage all the same.
Jesus came to release them, to give them freedom and life in abundance.
He does the same today.
The Jews of his time, and to a great extent today, chose to reject that freedom
Let's not make the same mistake.
Read Mark 7: 24-30
I think that it's more than mere coincidence that has these two passages linked together, because there's a common theme running through them.
Jesus is on the move again, this time to the regions of Tyre and Sidon, cities of Phoenicia which in turn was a part of Syria. The Phoenician cities were all rivals. They had their own kings, their own gods and their own coinage. More importantly from the point of view of this story, Jesus was in Gentile territory.
Maybe Jesus had come here in order to try and escape for a while, gather his thoughts. There's no doubt that back home he was under constant attack by the scribes and Pharisees, who had branded him a sinner because he broke all their rules and regulations. In fact, if these two passages actually happened in the sequence in which Mark placed them then we can perhaps understand the storm that Jesus was creating all around him.
So what's the significance, if any, of Jesus visiting Tyre and Sidon?
Probably because this was Gentile territory.
In the previous passage we have Jesus clearly wiping away any difference between what were considered by Jews to be clean or unclean food. Now perhaps, we have him doing exactly the same for people. Because just as a Jew wouldn't contaminate himself by touching food thought to be unclean, so he wouldn't allow himself to come into contact with an unclean Gentile.
Here again Jesus gives an answer that to some might be thought to be rather controversial, if not even unloving. After all, the poor woman only came to him for help because of the condition of her daughter; a need which Jesus ordinarily would have acceded to quite readily. And yet what does he say here?
'First let the children eat all they want. For it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.'
What a strange answer. To the Greek, the word dog meant a shameless woman, rather like we use the term bitch. To the Jew it was also a term of contempt, and sometimes used to describe the Gentiles. On the surface it was simply an insult, so how do we explain Jesus' use of the word?
Firstly, Jesus didn't use the usual word here; he used a diminutive word which describes not the wild dogs that roamed the streets and caused a nuisance, but the little lap-dogs of the house which are held to be objects of affection.
Secondly the woman seems to have seen Jesus engaging in a little light-hearted banter here, not tossing insults. There's something in the tone of a voice that can turn a word from an insult to a term of affection. Jesus didn't say no. He said that the children must be fed first, but then there is meat left over. Israel had the first offer of the gospel, but there was plenty left for the rest of God's household. The woman saw which way his mind was working and gave as good as she got. And this to Jesus was evidence of a faith that just wouldn't take no for an answer, and of course she got her prayers answered.
In those days people didn't eat with knives, forks or napkins on the table. They ate with their hands, wiped them clean on pieces of bread and flung these to the corner of the room for the house dogs to eat.
Symbolically then, this woman stands for the Gentile world which so eagerly seized on the bread of heaven which the Jews rejected and threw away.
So here we have, in two small chunks of the gospel of Mark a radical new agenda being proposed, where no longer would people be bound to the law, and where the distinctions between different races of people would be eliminated.
This was revolutionary language as far as the authorities were concerned, and threatened everything that they held dear.
This was the language of the Kingdom of God.
This is language which still threatens today. It threatens where man still considers himself better than his neighbor - for whatever reason.
It threatens whenever we think that the way we do things in our church is the only way to go. When we refuse change in favor of rigid tradition. The Jews had clung to their laws for thousands of years, and where had it got them? Further and further from their God.
Jesus came and brought change, and with that change came freedom, freedom from the burden of the law, of tradition, of fear, of stagnation. He also changed conceptions about race, in declaring all to be equal in the sight of God.
Jesus still comes to us with the language of the Kingdom. He challenges us today in the way that we live our lives, in the way that we look at this world and the way that we look at each other and our neighbors.
Jesus brings change. He brings change to our lives and to our worship. There is no doubt about this. If there is no change in our lives and in our worship then it's time to start worrying. For Jesus came to bring life in abundance and a freedom and joy that will not be bound by earthly rules.
He challenges us to live that life here and now.
© John Birch TOP OF PAGE