(Editor's Note: The Episcopal Preaching Foundation, founded by Dr.
Shilling almost 30 years ago, just completed its 28th week-long Preaching
Excellence Program for 63 seminarians and priests who are early in their
preaching careers. The participants delivered previously-prepared sermons in
small groups, which then critiqued them but also preached extemporaneous
sermons on randomly-assigned texts for which they had just 15 minutes to
prepare. Gary participated in one of these "Instant Preaching" workshops,
led by Rev. Dr. Micah Jackson, Associate Professor of Preaching at Seminary
of the Southwest in Austin, Tex. This was his message.)
Wash your hands before eating! No, I'm not referring to my late mother's
demand when she called us four kids for dinner and I was all dirty and
greasy from fixing my bicycle. Instead, it's what the Pharisees and other
Jewish leaders of the day told Jesus in the 7th chapter of Mark's Gospel,
when they saw his disciples eating with unwashed hands two thousand years
ago. Those bigwigs followed Jewish tradition by thoroughly washing their
hands as well as washing their cups, pots and kettles.
Let's approach this incident on two levels. First, we'll all in this
workshop assume we're modern day medical students. Do you have your
imaginary stethoscopes in your hands? From this perspective, we've got to
say, Jesus, you're a great religious leader but you don't know much about
hygiene and these Pharisees act like they do.
In the first century AD, of course, they didn't know anything about
bacteria, but from many generations of experience, the Jews knew that
washing before eating reduced the risk of illness. They'd never heard of
trichinosis and that thoroughly cooking pork kills it, but they did know
that avoiding pork altogether eliminated the problem.
Also, we're sorry, Jesus, but your knowledge of human anatomy is all wrong.
You said to the religious leaders, "Do you not see that whatever goes into a
person from the outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but
the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" Jesus, nutrients are absorbed
into the body from that food as it passes through the digestive system.
Otherwise, we'd starve. So substances from the outside do enter our bodies.
This brings me to the second level and the real significance of this
passage. Set aside your imaginary stethoscopes and put on your religious
collars as you consider Jesus's point. The Pharisees were emphasizing form
over substance. They were interested in visible customs that showed they
were following the many laws that governed everyday Jewish life, but Jesus
said that what's inside you is what counts. "It is what comes out of a
person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil
intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness,
deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly." Did he leave anything
Paul, in his epistles, took the concept further. He believed that regardless
of how hard you try, you never can make it by following all the numerous
religious rules of the day. So you need to simply accept God's acceptance of
you-warts and all. But in return, you should be "zealous for good deeds," as
he wrote to Titus. This is, of course, the Pauline Doctrine.
In a sense, not much has changed in 2,000 years. Many of us concentrate on
material success to the exclusion of family relationships and spiritual
development. Some have so many houses that visiting them resembles checking
into a hotel for a two-week or shorter stay.
Advertisers take advantage of people's belief that drinking a specific brand
of beer enhances their prestige. Pre-torn jeans are a fashion statement,
although my wife believes the patched clothing I use for beekeeping and
gardening have zero clout.
Jesus is telling us to avoid actions designed solely to impress others and
uphold convention, and concentrate instead on our inner spiritual life and
thoughts. He also implies, I believe, that we shouldn't let the criticisms
of others overwhelm us. How many of you believe that in just the last week,
you've been abused, misused and misunderstood by others?
Come on now, raise your hand. We all feel that way. But dwelling on it can
overwhelm us and keep us from realistically dealing with problems,
regardless of how difficult, and concentrating on helping others.
External thoughts, words and deeds obviously influence your inner being.
But don't let them dominate you. Remember that most of what you are comes