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A Precarious Righteousness (Mark 7:1-9)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century, Aug. 13-20, 1997, p. 725, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

"It is what comes out of a person that defiles."

With these words, Jesus concludes a diatribe against his fellow Jews, the Pharisees and scribes. Mark cites Jesus as using the word "hypocrites" in describing them. This is strong and disturbing stuff.

Sadly, Christians have used Jesusí denunciations to justify exclusion and persecution in the sorry history of "Christian" anti-Semitism. Not even the Son of God can control the way his words are used and abused.

To decent religious people of his time, Jesusí denunciations must have sounded like the crankish ravings of a renegade prophet whom even his own disciples could barely understand. He paid with his life for such attacks. Given his humiliating execution, who would have expected his words to survive his burial, let alone reverberate through centuries? It was only in the light of the resurrection that the apostles were driven to try to make some comprehensive sense of Jesusí teachings. We can hardly blame the Pharisees for being dubious.

What had begun as a dispute between Jews took an ominous turn when Christianity rose, within a few scant centuries, to become a great world power (in spite of Jesusí words, "My kingdom is not of this world"). Ironically, even as the Christian church was suffering brutal persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire and evolving to become the religion of that empire, Christianity was creating forms of ritualistic legalism that were as out of phase with the teachings of Jesus as the legalisms of the Pharisees and scribes.

It would be hard to deny that historically, the majority of Christians have advocated ethics closer to those of the ancient catholic church and the Pharisees than to those of Jesus. This is understandable. In one sense, Jesusí ethic was so demanding as to break the hearts of all who would follow him: Sell all you have and give to the poor, resist not one who is evil, love your enemy, take no heed for the morrow. Yet in another sense, Jesusí ethic is so free of substantive religious demands that it seems to disappear, to poof into nothing. "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." His rejection of the formal requirements of religious life -- rigid observance of the Sabbath, strict avoidance of social involvement with "sinners," ritual washing or kosher laws -- can open the door to the same laissez-faire "anything goes" religiosity that plagues contemporary Protestantism.

The Pharisees understood that allegiance to the formal requirements of a community is basic to the identity, uniqueness and discipline of that community. Jesus insisted that it is what comes out of people that defiles them, that from peopleís hearts come evil intentions leading to fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly. The Pharisee would not have disagreed; indeed, the human heart is the seat of all sin. What the Pharisees were concerned about was how the community trains and disciplines human hearts. Community requires more specification than the insight that "it is what comes out of a person that defiles."

For Jesus it was enough to know that to be righteous is to be perfect even as our Heavenly Father is perfect. We must figure out the rest for ourselves.

Could it be that the lofty idealism and freedom entailed in Jesusí instructions drive us, his would-be followers, to the legalism that Jesus rejects? Would not a legal, philosophically balanced set of ethical instructions, as with Roman Catholic canon law, put some rational limits on what can be expected from us in light of Jesusí wildly radical cross-bearing ethics?

Notwithstanding our uneasiness, we resonate with Jesusí teachings at many levels. Positively, we would love to love as Jesus loved. Negatively, as 20th-century Americans, our fixation on personal liberty evokes from us an almost knee-jerk reaction against any and all formalism. We know that external compliance with conventional morality can be a cover-up for dark and sinister motives. Thus, when Jesus spoke of the legalists of his day as whitewashed tombs glistening in the Palestinian sun, disguising the fact that within these tombs was the vile stench of rotting flesh, his words have a modern ring.

Given these happy parallels between Jesusí teachings and our best modern sensitivities and insights, why is it that a careful reading of Jesus ethical instructions does not leave us feeling justified? Quite the contrary. Jesusí words and life slay our every claim to righteousness.

As pragmatic realists we admire the hardheaded "proof of the pudding is in the eating" practicality of our text. What really matters is what a person does -- not the trappings of respectability that a person might affect.

At our best we dare to think that Jesus is right; the test of righteousness is what comes out of people. Yet by our very agreement with Jesus we stand accused despite our moments of righteous living. Given that we are rich when the world is poor, that we cling to our nuclear arms as if world extermination were a noble risk, destroy ancient forests, gouge the landscape, pollute the soil, water and air, that we copulate and abort with unrestrained abandon -- how then are we to interpret Jesusí words, "It is what comes out of a person that defiles," so as to come up smelling like roses?

We canít live with Jesus and his words and we canít live without them. When the Lord of the universe comes among us in our weakness, how can we but falter and look away? Yet we have glimpsed him, and though we may seem the same we are not the same. How much better off we are, no matter how he assails our consciences!

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