Songs 2:8-13, Mark 7:1-23 & James 1:17-27
This week the lectionary presents stories of exiting from human-made enclosures and then moving toward freedom. The enclosures that we will discuss are a castle and a tradition. I want to be clear on the front end, that I these human constructs are not bad in and of themselves. [hard stop]. They are only less-than-valuable if people get stuck there and cannot move toward freedom.
The first enclosure comes from the Song of Songs [The Hebrew title is not Song of Solomon]. There are many ways to interpret this book, but, following Ewald, Jacobi, C.D. Ginsburg and S.R. Driver, I understand the Song of Songs to be a love triangle featuring a Shulammite woman, her shepherd lover and King Solomon who has captured the woman and confined her to his royal harem. In the passage we read for this week, the beloved shepherd comes down from the mountains, only to find his lover enclosed behind walls (Songs 2:8-9). He is able to peek at her through lattice work and windows, and calls for her to come flee to the countryside with him (Songs 2:9-10, 13). The shepherd then describes the countryside and all its bounty which used to be theirs together [our land] (Songs 2:12). The woman eventually breaks free (Songs 3:1-4 and possibly again in Songs 5:7). As grand as Solomon’s palace was and life with him would have been (Songs 3:6-10), the Shulammite refuses to be simply another one of Solomon’s sexual partners and repeatedly seeks to run away to be with her one, true beloved. Just as there was nothing wrong with the palace itself until it became a prison for someone who did not wish to stay, Jesus expounded on traditions that had gotten in the way of people’s freedom.
In the gospel text, some of Jesus’ interlocutors ask him why his disciples were eating with hands that had not been ritually washed. Now, as even my two-year-old son will tell you, washing your hands before you eat is a fundamentally good idea. There is nothing wrong with the practice at all. But when it becomes a means to trap people and to look down on them for not following a tradition, that made Jesus angry. In fact, Jesus’ angry response seems a bit out of proportion.
Jesus was hung out with and ate with Pharisees regularly. Pharisees basically defined themselves by keeping ritually pure all the time. This wasn’t strictly necessary except for temple servants and priests, and becoming ritually impure is NOT the same thing as sinning. But the Pharisees’ vision of a restored covenant people involved the people being ready [ritually pure] at any moment to encounter the presence of God. It was actually a radically equitable belief system that argued that all the people were to be as holy/set apart from normal society as priests.
As such, the Pharisees only shared meal times with those who followed the same ritual rules as they did, in order to maintain purity. In fact, the word for their community “parusim” from which we derive “Pharisee” means something like “the separated ones.” So the evidence that they were present with Jesus while he and his disciples were eating (Mark 7:1-2) gives Biblical scholars a pretty good indication that Jesus and his followers were at least at the fringes of the Pharisaic movement, if not more closely involved. One simply does not dine with Pharisees as often as Jesus did without being a Pharisee.
Instead of answering a pretty basic, and accusative, question about why “some of his disciples” [which is not to say Jesus or all of his disciples] set aside important traditions about pre-meal washing, Jesus turned the tables and asked those around him why they set aside important laws about parental care. Jesus then went even further to say that nothing that goes into humans can make them unclean, but only that evil which comes out of them (Mark 7:16, 23).
Jesus intensifies the discussion from what is merely unclean to what is actually evil/sinful (Mark 7:21-22). These are two different levels entirely. Being unclean only prevents people from engaging in certain holy activities (temple worship, sex…). To be unclean is not the same as sinning and being unclean is not evil. It is the evil in the hearts of humans, however, especially expressed in sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly that makes humans ritually unclean according to Jesus. One cannot simply follow the rules, while at the same time abusing or mistreating other humans and expect to be ready to be in God’s presence.
I think that it’s important to note that the evils that flow from the hearts of people are so-called social sins. Idolatry and holy-oath-breaking that are sins against God are not on Jesus’ list here. Mistreating other humans, either their bodies as in the case of murder, adultery or lewdness, or their inner-selves as in the case of greed, malice, deceit, slander or arrogance are the actual sins – and not just transgressions of rules of ritual purity – that render people unable to appear before God’s presence at the temple or elsewhere. For Jesus, getting bogged down in rules about ritual status that prevent one from dealing with the deeper sins that harm sisters and brothers is a trap that he wants to free people from. The traditions were not the problem, and by all accounts Jesus followed them. It was only when the traditions prevented people from focusing on eradicating that sin that was harming other humans that it got in the way of freedom.
As the letter from James says, “every good and perfect gift is from above,” especially the “perfect law that grants freedom” to those who “continue in it…, doing it – they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1: 17, 25). The freedom that we are to be moving toward is not a licentiousness antinomianism. Rather, it is a freedom from traps that would prevent us from living fully. No matter if it is a grand palace or an otherwise healthy tradition, if it prevents us from partnering with what God is doing, we need to be freed from it.
BONUS: On Nuancing Unclean/Evil Food Tradition
The Gospel of Mark notes that in saying that nothing that enters a person makes that person unclean, Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). But we need to remember the nuance between unclean and sinful. Not everything was permissible for folks to eat, even if they were not worried about ritual purity/cleanliness. That seems to have been the universal understanding of the early church.
First, the disciples noted in the Mark passage itself that when Jesus said that nothing that goes into someone can defile them, he was speaking as a parable, not as plain speech (Mark 7:17). Further, even after the resurrection, Peter did not eat unclean foods (Acts 10:12-17). At the first church council in Jerusalem, Peter, James the brother of Jesus and Paul all agreed that ALL believers should not eat food sacrificed to idols or bloody meat (Acts 15:20, 29). In a letter to the Corinthian church, Paul shamed the gnostics who used their special secret “knowledge” [see 1 Cor 8:10 as especially dripping in sarcasm] to show others that eating food defiled by idolatry was not a big deal, which it clearly was (1 Cor 8:1-13).
The early Christian community recognized that there were some foods that Gentile-Christians ate that Jewish-Christians did not eat, and that was as it should be and not a big deal. It seems further that the authoritative tradition for both Gentile and Jewish Christians, at least in the first century or so after Jesus, was that eating food dedicated to idols or with the blood still in it was not just unclean, but was actually evil (Exodus 34:15, Genesis 9:4). So, while Gentiles should not have been forced to attend to ritual purity concerns about unclean foods, ALL believers were to avoid foods that were participating in evil.