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Open the Circle

Our narrative lectionary reading for this upcoming Sunday is from Mark 7:14:23.  Jesus has just finished defending his disciples when the Pharisees asked why they did not follow the tradition of washing before meals.  Jesus uses this to launch into a discussion of what actually makes us unclean.  It is not what we put in our body, but what comes out of it. 

The disciples don't get it, so they ask him about it later.  Jesus, exasperated, says "are you being willfully ignorant!"  before launching into an explanation.  He points out that our digestive system takes care of cleaning the things we put into our body, but the words and deeds we put into the world are not filtered in the same way, those things do indeed defile us.  It is here that a scribe makes an addition.  According the scribe this put an end to the debate over clean and unclean food, but Paul and the disciples argued about this later in Acts, it was not a settled issue at this time.  This leaves you to wonder how the disciples understood Jesus' words. 

When reading this, I am struck by the use of the world "defile".  It is easy for us to just read sin into this list of things we should not do, but the word choice was a religious term used to state that a person was unfit for the community.  Someone who was defiled was not allowed to participate in the Jewish community life.  "Defile" was not always about sin, the same word was used about women on their menstrual cycle, or a man who had just buried his father.  This can change the meaning of this story quite a bit.

What if Jesus was pointing out that it is not what we eat, or the religious rules we adhere to, but what we say, what we do, and how we treat people that makes us acceptable to the community.  He was rebuking the Pharisees, who had made the rules so difficult that the average person could no longer participate in community life.  They had missed the point.  Jesus was interested in the reconciliation of the ostracized to the community.  He was tearing down the walls, and making the "in crowd" larger with his every action.

It reminded me of the following poem by Edwin Markhum:

“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”


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