A Sermon from Sherborne

Law and the heart – the teaching of Jesus

A sermon for Mattins at Castleton Church, preached on Sunday 2 September 2018 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest


Today’s Second Lesson [Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23] deals with the question of rules and regulations. These verses in Mark’s Gospel, dealing with purity laws and eating food, are probing subjects much deeper than mere rules of hygiene. One commentator goes so far as to say, ‘This is one of the most important passages in the New Testament for gaining an insight into the way Mark, and Jesus before him, handled scripture.’ (William Loader).

The discussion on purity laws can be focused on the minutiae of handling food. For example, touching food with unclean hands does not contravene the Mosaic Law, but if liquid is present, then it does. It is this concentration of absolute adherence to the Mosaic Law, which draws the ire and condemnation of Jesus. He could see that mindless obedience to a set of laws, which did not have as its centre the wellbeing of the human heart, was fundamentally wrong. There is no evidence that Jesus himself broke dietary rules; it is the attitude of mind and heart that disturbs him most. If adherence to the Law, in all its details, took precedence over a person’s love for God and a response to the outpouring of his love, then such behaviour must change.

When I first entered this Church, a few weeks ago, I was struck by the beauty of space and peace that the building gives us. As I moved to the chancel, my eyes were drawn to the magnificent lettering on the high altar reredos depicting the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. The way that the gold lettering reflects the light is truly breathtaking!

The Ten Commandments are often featured prominently on the walls of Churches. Sherborne Abbey has an enormous display near the Crossing, as I’m sure you know. One of the Churches from which I have come, near Salisbury, has a similar display – hand cut lettering all around the chancel arch. And so it is throughout our country: depictions of the words of the Ten Commandments are displayed for all to see and take to heart.

These famous words are not only displayed in sacred places such as churches and cathedrals. Dylan Thomas has the famous reference to the Ten Commandments in his Under Milk Wood, ‘A Play for Voices’. In the opening section, he invites the listener:

Time passes. Listen. Time passes. Come closer now. Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the coms. and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the dead.

When I prepare candidates for Confirmation, I often use the American Book of Common Prayer, which has a chapter entitled ‘An Outline of the Faith’. There are no ‘Shalt Nots’ in that book. The Ten Commandments are all given in a positive vein, with some of them given more wide ranging meaning relevant for life today. For example, the Tenth Commandment says this: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s. The ABCP says this: Q. What is our duty to our neighbours? A. To resist temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy; to rejoice in other people’s gifts and graces; and to do our duty for the love of God, who has called us into fellowship with him.

So, what is it that makes the displays and the teachings of the Ten Commandments so important? I think that they have caught the imagination of Christian people because they attempt to relate ways in which human beings can not only survive, but flourish in community. They attempt to demonstrate that human society can exist in a peaceful and coherent way if certain rules are followed and defined parameters are laid down.

Another reason for their prominence could be that they come from deep within the Jewish tradition, which forms much of our own Christian Faith and way of life. The Mosaic Law, from which the Ten Commandments come, together with thousands of other rules and regulations for daily living, form a framework of reference which defines the Jewish experience of life and identity over thousands of years. The Jewish people have retained their Jewishness, in spite of being dispersed throughout the world for nearly two thousand years.

The 613 rules of the Mosaic Law, or mitzvahs, can be seen represented in the tassels on the fringes of men’s prayer shawls. Whenever an Orthodox Jewish man is in public, he must always show these tassels, or tzizits, to show his adherence to the Law, and therefore to his very identity. Jesus himself, will have worn these tassels on his prayer shawl. When we hear of people touching the fringe of his garment and are healed, they are in touch with the very identity of Jesus through his tassels, which would have been on display.

Mark tackles the issue of blind obedience to rules head on. Matthew and Luke are not entirely happy with Mark’s treatment of the subject: Matthew alters the detail and specifies an argument over Jewish scruples rather than scripture [Loader] and Luke omits the section altogether. So the subject is a sensitive issue in Jewish thought, with Jesus opening up a closed ossified legal system to enable freedom of the human spirit to thrive.

We have this life-enhancing attitude of Jesus at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel in Chapter Two, which featured earlier in the year in our following of the Gospel. The issue then was about the status of the Sabbath – that most sacred of Jewish article of faith and belief which impacts directly on the practice of daily living. Jesus insists on working and healing on the Sabbath, drawing attention and criticism from the Scribes and Pharisees. The argument is concluded by Jesus stating that ‘The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath’ [Mark 2.27]. In this short statement we can see that the emphasis of the Mosaic Law is understood by Jesus to benefit human beings in the first instance. Surely, this view is far away from that of modern day Sabbatarians, for whom the keeping of Sabbath is sacrosanct above all else!

But this pronouncement by Jesus goes even deeper than views and opinions about the keeping of Shabbat. By focusing on matters of ritual, in this case the ritual cleansing of hands before eating, the Pharisees were ignoring the much more serious defilement of the human heart.

I use here an example of ritual used by Christian priests at the Eucharist – myself included. Before offering the bread and wine to our Heavenly Father in the Eucharistic Prayer, priests will often have water poured over their fingers using what is called the Lavabo. The action of the Lavabo is to make the priest holy before offering (and handling) the Eucharistic bread and wine. I, along with many other priests, use the phrase from Psalm 26 v.6 ‘I will wash my hands in innocency, O Lord, and so will I go to thine altar’. We are not concerned here about the mechanics of hand-washing to make the fingers physically clean; that action can be addressed by use of anti-bacterial gel. The focus here is the attitude of heart, that the priest, in humble obedience to the Father, may perform their duty by approaching the altar as a holy person. This is but one example of an action in which the clergy are involved.

In Jewish thought and belief, all Jewish men, women and children are called to be a ‘holy nation’ and members of a priesthood that is shared. Such a view is mirrored precisely in Christian thought about faithful and believing Christians. Therefore the subject of a change of heart is something fundamental to the thinking of Jesus, but also to us as his followers. The painstaking concentration of following ritual laws and regulations must never take the place of the change of heart needed for us to have communion with God, and to be instruments through which his saving love can come to the world.

I conclude by quoting words from the Lutheran Professor of Theology, Elisabeth Johnson, which encapsulate much of what is discussed around the world at present on this passage from Mark:

This good news exerts a claim on our lives, a call to follow. Following Jesus is not about separating ourselves from those considered less holy or unclean. Following Jesus means that like him, we get our hands dirty serving others, caring especially for those whom the world has cast aside. True faithfulness is not about clean hands, but a heart cleansed and a life shaped by the radical, self-giving love of God in Christ.

The Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest 02/09/2018
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton