Mark 7: 1-23

God At The Market Place

The closing of chapter 6 is also the introduction to chapter 7 and our Gospel text. In which Jesus and his disciples have crossed Lake Galilee to the land at Gennesaret on the north-western bank of the lake. Gennesaret is a small, but a very fertile plain rich in agriculture. It is also richly populated because of its agriculture and fishing industry. With so many people there it became a great place for Jesus to carry out his ministry.

Gennesaret was also a region for selling and buying. Fishermen would sell their harvest of fish either from their moored boats at the shore or a little further on amongst those who were selling the harvest of the field. People came from everywhere to buy their daily needs. Locals, travellers, and visitors would all meet not only to do business but also to talk, socialise, eat, and to help each other. The setting and atmosphere is very much of a market place. It is into this setting that Jesus comes to do his ministry.
Jesus often teaches in parables and uses the familiar things of the people around him to help demonstrate his point. And so in our text today, Jesus uses food and the eating of it to demonstrate his point. For now, the primary point that I would like you to see from the setting of our Gospel text is that, God is at the market place doing what he does best, teaching and helping people.

As Jesus arrived at the shore of Gennesaret the people looked up and they recognised him as their helper, their saviour. Wherever he went in the neighbourhood people brought out to him the sick that he may heal them. They placed the sick in the market places so that the sick may have an opportunity to reach out and touch Jesus for healing. Once again, the atmosphere in the market place contains in part aspiring dreams, great expectations, good will, love, hope, joy, peace, and salvation. Much of this market place atmosphere is happening because God is at the market place moving about creating and preserving life.

But now, the air has been fouled by the arrival of the Pharisees with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem. They are the ones busy practising the Law. A part of that practise is to ensure that everyone is doing the right thing by them. The scribes study the Law, talk about it, make changes to it, and probably dream about it too. They seem to be preoccupied with it more than anything else. They have come from Jerusalem, the city and capital of the Law. Many people also refer to Jerusalem as the city of God since the house of God is there too. That might be so, and unlike the Pharisees and scribes we know that God is not there contained in his house but busy at the market place.

The Pharisees and scribes look up and see Jesus. They don’t see a helper and saviour like the other people, but they see only the dirt on the hands of his disciples while eating food and the dirt in the market place. As they move to Jesus to challenge him in this matter the people move away. The Pharisees and scribes through holding an arrogant attitude of the Law form a kind of barrier around Jesus making it difficult for others to get to him.

A discussion arises between Jesus and the antagonists from Jerusalem. The Pharisees and scribes are concerned over the ritual of cleanliness before eating. They furthermore accuse the disciples of Jesus for abandoning the Law of God and the tradition of the elders. Likewise, Jesus accuses them for leaving the commandment of God and holding fast to the “tradition of men”. They seem to be accusing each other over the same thing that is, not following the right tradition.

The Gospel writer Mark, at this point gives an explanatory note in our Gospel text, saying that, all the Jews perform the ritual of washing cups, and pots, and bowls. I believe that Mark uses irony through this explanatory note to help polarise the two different perspectives from God. At one end, God is at the market place doing wonderful things and giving life to the people. At the other end some vocal locals are focussed on whether a bowl is clean enough for food. And yet both parties are arguing about the right meaning of tradition. Then what is the difference?

Let us never forget that the Word of God is thousands of years old. It has been handed down and practised through the generations. It is the best tradition that we can adhere to. It is a living tradition that gives life. God gave this tradition first to Moses then to all the people of Israel, and now we have it too. And within those traditions came the washing of cups, pots, and bowls. They are also part of God’s Word to Moses. Then, where is the problem with tradition?

The problem arises where we place our focus on the Word of God. The Word of God is meant to give life. Therefore, at the top of the list is the commandment to love God. It takes priority over other matters. And the second is like it, to love one another. Near the bottom of the list we are told to clean our cups, pots, and bowls. Even this commandment was given that we may have life and be providers of life. Behind the words of God lie the intentions and actions of God. Without those initial actions there would be no words. Those actions show a loving God, a God that gives of himself for others so that they may have life. We saw this loving God as Jesus in action at the market place demonstrating what he had always intended for us to know and do, to give life.

In contrast, if we do not know a loving God, or can not see the loving God in action then all we know are commands and duty. Much of what we fuss over is trivial in the sight of God. This is where the Pharisees and scribes had their focus, on washing cups, pots, and bowls. They could not see the loving God in Jesus nor that he was fulfilling God’s will by loving one another. And so Jesus called this misplaced focus, “the traditions of men”.

So the next time you hear the word tradition, don’t cringe yet, but first see where the focus lies. Will it provide life or hinder it? Like the Pharisees and the scribes their wrong focus on tradition kept people away from Jesus. Fortunately, Jesus is bigger than they are and is able to break through to the people. Jesus continues to call people to him, to his tradition, and life.

When we get pedantic or picky about something or a trivial matter becomes a big issue more than likely we are following the ‘traditions of men’. Our focus therefore is on the wrong place because we have forgotten God and do not have God’s love in our hearts.

Here is an example of the traditions of men; recently some politicians have been talking about getting rid of those excessively polluting motor vehicles. They probably feel that the air around Parliament House is very thick and foul. They suggest that heavy fines would help get rid of those vehicles.

It is all very fine for people who can afford to regularly upgrade to a new clean car. They would probably be happy with that idea. But what about the poor people? It may mean that they miss out on transport all together, and perhaps a jail sentence for not paying the fine.

The idea about reducing the amount of air pollution is great. It will contribute to a healthier life. But let us also help the poor people to achieve the same thing without giving them a further burden. Even in this example we need to check where our focus lies, so that we can extend life to all people. It is what God would want us to do.

In another example closer to home, we have a challenge before us, how to survive financially as a parish. It may mean joining with another congregation, perhaps with Marton. Where will our focus lie? Will we follow the ‘traditions of men’, or will we focus on God’s love and how to give love and life to others?

At times we all feel that we are trapped by the ‘traditions of men’ with a focus on things that really do not matter in the sight of God. There is a way out. Jesus continues to call people back to him. We need to listen and see Jesus in action. In a sense, we need to see God busy at the market place. One way we can do this is by searching for God’s loving actions in the Bible, the tradition that he has given us. In this way we will see new things and our focus will begin to change. Our change will become a focus on God and a heart filled with love for others.   Amen.

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