The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 30, 2015
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
When I was a kid, my parents did all in their power to teach me proper table manners. They said I had to sit at the table until everybody else was finished. My parents said that I had to eat my vegetables. Most importantly, they said that I had to keep my elbows off the table.
You remember your parents telling you similar things. Well, I remember thinking, “why can’t I put my elbows on the table? It’s comfortable. What’s the big deal?” And I only remember my parents saying something like, “because it’s not nice.” Okay, so that’s not an actual reason. My parents never explained, actually explained, why elbows shouldn’t go on tables. They could have just said, “because I told you so.” But, because I was a good little boy, I kept my elbows off the table without ever really knowing why I should. In other words, I was doing the right thing without any reasoning at all.
This is similar to the problem that Jesus encounters. Here’s the scene. Jesus is in Galilee with the disciples teaching, preaching, and healing the sick. Some Pharisees and scribes come up from Jerusalem to check him out. And the Pharisees and scribes notice that Jesus’ disciples were eating their food without washing their hands. Real quick – we all know that we should our hands before we eat for hygienic reasons. That’s not what we’re talking about here. It wasn’t so much that the disciples had actual dirt on their hands, it was that they were ritually unclean. There was a ritual, a tradition, that said you should ritually wash your hands before you eat. This was not part of the Law, the Torah. This was just another tradition that had come about. It was a good thing to do, like keeping your elbows off the table, but it wasn’t part of the Law.
But the Pharisees and the scribes don’t like it one bit. They do not like that the disciples are so flagrantly dismissive of tradition.
What Jesus says to them, is a little bit cryptic. So let’s walk through it. He quotes Isaiah. “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.” In other words, “you are keeping your elbows off the table without knowing why you should. You have made a mountain out of a mole hill.”
Notice, Jesus did not say that the tradition was bad. What’s bad, is when we follow the tradition for the wrong reasons. This gets into a conversation on cleanliness. It’s not your hands that make you dirty, Jesus says. It’s now what is on the outside that makes you clean or dirty, it’s what’s on the inside that makes you clean or dirty. So he lists off a number of sins: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Those are the things that we do, that come out of our hearts that make us unclean.
Jesus is telling his disciples that they need to ask the deeper questions. They need to ask “why am I doing this?” Why am I doing this? Don’t just wash your hands for the sake of washing your hands. Why are you washing your hands?
Because the Christian life is not a series of boxes to check off. It’s just not. The Christian life is a journey with ups and downs. With hills and valleys. Your life with Christ is not a checklist. Your life with Christ is just that, a life. And through it all, we need to be asking ourselves, “why am I doing this? Am I doing it for the right reasons or the wrong reasons?” Then look inside, see what’s going on here.
Let’s take money for an example. Nobody likes to talk about money. Well, we don’t mind talking about other people’s money, it’s just our money that we don’t like talking about. But how we spend our money is a moral issue. Where you spend your money is a pretty good indicator of where your priorities are. Good or bad. So let’s talk about giving to the church. Why are you giving money to the church? Because I think there is a progression in there. First, like a parent teaching a child to keep their elbows off the table, we give our money because it’s the right thing to do. And it is. But as you go on, we start to realize that there has to be a deeper reason. So we start to realize that, whoa, churches use money like any other organization. We need to pay the light bill. We need to pay the staff. We have ministries and outreach projects that need to be funded. So we start giving our “fair share.” And that’s a start, but there is more beyond that. It’s when we give our money out of gratitude that we’re doing the right thing for the right reason. Gratitude for God’s presence in our lives. Gratitude for this Church family. Gratitude for everything, really. That’s giving from a place of faithfulness. Of saying, in a very real way, that God comes first in your life. Giving money to the Church out of gratitude, is doing the right thing for the right reason. Giving money is not just another box to check. It is part of our journey to know Jesus. And it’s not about the amount, it’s about why and how we give. We can give money like a child keeps their elbows off the able. But that is insincere. When we give from a place of gratitude; we experience God in more profound ways.
Now let’s talk about prayer. We all know that we “should” pray. It’s the right thing to do. Our first prayers are the prayers we say behind the steering wheel or right before a big meeting. Those are okay, but there’s more to it. Prayer is not about what we get out of it, but what we put into it. Again, there is a progression. Soon, we start praying for other people instead of ourselves. That’s a right start, but there is more to it. I think the most profound prayers are when you simply sit in God’s presence and listen. Praying for the right reason is wanting to get to know God, for the simple purpose of getting to know God. That is doing the right thing for the right reason. Prayer is not just another box to check in your life with Jesus. Prayer is your life with Jesus.
A life with Jesus is a journey. It is a not a set of rules, it is not a list of boxes to check. I believe that is what Jesus is getting at. You can wash your hands all day long, but the point of it all is not washing your hands. The point is growing closer to God. The point of giving money is to grow closer to God. The point of prayer is to grow closer to God. Right things always have right reasons.
Now, let’s get back to elbows on the table. Turns out, this little mannerism probably started at medieval feasts. Imagine big rooms packed in with people at long benches. As many people as possible were packed into these feasts, so there wasn’t much room. Keeping your elbows off the table was simply a way of packing more and more in. It wasn’t about being “proper” or “nice,” it was just about stuffing people into the feast.
Next time you sit down to a meal with someone, look around the table. If there is not much room, keep your elbows off the table. You don’t want to bump their fork onto the floor. It’s the nice thing to do, and that’s doing it for the right reason. If you’re at home eating Domino’s pizza at the kitchen table, who cares? Put those flappers up there.
When you give money to the Church, when you approach God in prayer, when you think about how to serve God – ask yourself “why am I doing this?” Do not do something just to check off a box or because your mother told you to. When you come to meet the living God, doing so with intentionality and with care. And in all you do, remember that the point of it all, is to grow closer to Jesus.