The last time we saw the disciples, Jesus had sent them out two by two and they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Now back with Jesus, they report all that they had done and taught, and he said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” So many were coming and going, they had no leisure even to eat. So, they got in a boat and headed for a deserted place, but it was quicker on foot, and the crowd beat them to this once deserted spot. As Jesus went ashore, he saw the great crowd and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. And it grew late.
Jesus must have been in the flow and lost track of time, because his disciples came announcing the obvious, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late. Send the people away so that they can go into the villages and buy something to eat.”
But Jesus – whose ways are not our ways nor thoughts our thoughts – said, “No, you give them something to eat.”
I think the disciples must have made a lot of sideways glances in their career, checking to see if any of them had a glint of understanding. Mike Miles offers a disciples’ kind of quote from Ken Keesy: “Since we don’t know where we’re going, we have to stick together in case someone gets there.”
However, lacking this glint of insight, the fellas ask if they should make a run to the IGA and buy two hundred denarii worth of pita. Jesus said, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” They came back saying, “Five, and two fish,” no doubt thinking this would put an end to the matter.
But it didn’t, and we know the rest of the story: Jesus blessed and broke the loaves, gave them to the disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And when everyone had eaten their fill, there were twelve baskets of leftovers – both bread and fish – and those who had eaten numbered five thousand men. Lukes adds, “not counting women and children”, but we won’t quibble about women not counting (this time). We get the point. It was a sign and a wonder, followed immediately by another one. After getting their fill of Wonder Bread, Jesus sent the people away and sent the disciples back over the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida in Gentile territory. But Jesus misses the boat praying, a storm comes up, and everyone is afraid for their lives until Jesus catches up to them, walking over the water. They are perhaps more terrified at this, “utterly astounded”, we are told, “for they did not understand about the loaves, because their hearts were hardened.” They finally came ashore at Genessaret, which means they were blown from the northeast shore of Lake Galilee back across the sea to land 3 miles south of where they started out. All in all, a trying day.
When they finally disembarked, people “at once recognized Jesus, and chased about that whole region bringing their sick to wherever they heard he was teaching. Wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,” (that is an 85 mile journey to the north, by the way – I don’t really picture scribes and Pharisees going that far), but anyway, apparently they did, and “they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban.”‘ (that is a practice of willing assets to the Temple making them unavailable to be used for elderly parents’ care, but rather encourages circumventing the moral and legal imperative to honor mother and father) “‘thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘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. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'”
Our reading ends here, except that the next bit is important, and we’ll miss it if I don’t add it now.
From there they set out and went to the northern Gentile region of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. That’s a 40 mile hike through rough terrain, climbing and dropping 4000 feet in elevation a number of times on their way to the coast. In Tyre, Jesus was spotted by a Syrophoenician woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit. This is a great story but I’m not going to tell now because I’m focusing on the travelogue. From Tyre, Jesus and his merry men went another 20 miles north to Sidon, and then in an eastern arch back towards the Sea of Galilee, ending on the southeast side of the lake in the region of the Decapolis – all in Gentile territory.
Of course, Jesus heals along the way, he feeds 4000, then turns around again and goes back 50 miles north to Caesarea Philippi. There is no explanation for all of this hiking activity away from Galilee. Perhaps it’s to shake off the crowds. Perhaps Jesus wanted to see a bit of the world away from home, to see how the other side lived. Perhaps it was to stay out of reach of his opponents in Jerusalem while he teaches the disciples all that they need to know. (That teaching maybe took more time than he had scheduled?) And, this is a three year story told without any time markers, so, perhaps it took over a long time, slowly walking, lots of visiting along the way.
We can’t know any of that, of course. What we do know is that Mark’s travelogue is unique among the gospels and shows us that Jesus was not limiting God’s activity to the chosen people. In fact, he was always expanding the territory, widening the reach. Not only to the unclean, ignorant, and disgraceful among his own people, but to those ‘dogs’ – the derogatory name for Samaritans and Phoenicians.
So we know there is wideness in God’s mercy, amazing grace, peace to soothe our bitter woes, love divine, all other love’s excelling.
And we know that people in this gospel are real people – not stylized people like in the gospel of John – but true to the human condition. There are those who trust and those who doubt and those who oppose – all of which is evidence of the condition of their hearts. And that is Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees and scribes. They have hardened their hearts because Jesus doesn’t meet their expectation and doesn’t fit within the framework of their tradition.
But, how are we supposed to tell the difference between religion and human tradition? I mean, we know that Fastelavns isn’t a means of salvation, but it is, in its own way, a means of grace. Intergenerational, playful, open to anyone who finds their way in on a cold dark night in February. The Lutheran Church is full of traditions – what to say in performing a baptism, what baptism does, who is allowed communion, how Christ is present in the sacraments, the purpose of ordained leadership for the sake of right order, the shape of liturgy, being a creedal church – stating belief in the creeds as an orthodox standard of faith. There are more – hymns to sing on festival days, how acolytes are to approach the altar, when to switch from regular to decaffeinated coffee.
This particular congregation intentionally blurs the lines of many official traditions if they seem to limit access to, or estrange people from, a relationship with God. Traditions are human precepts, humanly devised standards that do keep a certain order, allow a certain standardization of what one can expect to take place or be spoken and performed here. But are any of them standing in the way of, or in the place of Jesus?
Are our personal, social heritage and traditions – like quietude, passivity, Danish tribalism preventing God’s word to open fully in your heart or the heart of others? Does my progressive, often imaginative interpretation of scripture characterize God in ways that invite or limit faith to grow?
These are among the things Jesus was talking about, they just didn’t make his list along with infidelity, greed, debauchery, corruption, hubris, materialism, irresponsibility and cuckoldry. I’m a word nerd – I looked up synonyms for his list.
Jesus’ list is itself a word nerd expansion of the 10 commandments – you shall not kill, steal, lie, covet, slander – these are bad because they are hard on your neighbor and do not demonstrate the love of God.
I occasionally go to continuing ed. or synod sponsored events. Every registration form these days lists about 8 dietary categories to choose from – vegan, vegetarian; gluten, soy, dairy free; allergy to nuts or shellfish; Keto; omnivore. We are very particular about what we put into our bodies. A modern, individualistic form of the purity code. Jesus says God is fine with all of it because it will all end in the sewer.
Are we as particular with what we put into our minds? Video games, books, music, movies, 24 hr news – do these things feed you, nourish a sense of well being or wonder, fill you with a peaceful kindliness toward others? Do they expand your horizons of tolerance and justice and courage? Are they worthy of your mind? In biblical terms, they don’t end in the sewer, but in your heart and in your behavior and in your soul.
It can seem as though we live in a heartless society. Cruelty makes the news daily, courage only occasionally. Perhaps we seem heartless in order to protect our hearts, to keep them from bleeding out at all the grief and horror we witness. Maybe it feels safest to keep your heart closed, if not hardened – but that leads to hardened arteries with plaques of anger, fear, prejudice that can let go at any time and block your heart altogether, or damage the functioning of your whole body in one stroke.
Maybe on those long walks in rough terrain, Jesus was teaching his disciples there is no reason to be afraid of the unholiness of others, of unsavory or dangerous elements of creation, of places, people and situations that may appear godforsaken.
The world Jesus invites us to see has no quarantines, no refugee camps, no decontamination chambers. So he eats with tax collectors and sinners, he touches lepers and bleeders, he handles the bodies of dead and diseased, he preaches to pig farmers, Gentiles and heathens. In the story of the Syrophoenician mother, Jesus is surprised by her insightful conversation. If Jesus continued to learn from ‘others’, then so may we. The world is wide when we consider everyone worthwhile. And so our sentence to repeat 5 times a day this week is this:
Open heart, open mind – let the good and God enter the world through me.