From Mark’s Gospel ….

Jesus said to his disciples, “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.”

(From the Daily Office Readings, Mar. 17, 2012, Mark 7:18-23)

This conversation comes after a confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes who criticized Jesus and the disciples for not washing their hands before eating (and some commentary from Mark about washing food from the market and “cups, pots, and bronze kettles”). Jesus said to his critics, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” (Mark 7:9) ~ Jesus is here addressing the rabbinical (as opposed to biblical) laws called the mitzvot d’rabbanan (“commandmens of the rabbis”). These are additions to the laws that come directly from Torah. These rabbinic laws are still referred to as mitzvot (“commandments”), even though they are not part of the original 613 mitzvot found in Scripture. They are considered to be as binding as Torah laws. The mitzvot d’rabbanan are commonly divided into three categories: gezeirah, takkanah, and minhag. ~ The names of these divisions give us a clue to their origins. Gezeirah derives from the Hebrew root word for “separate”; these rules are considered a “fence around the Torah”; they prevent obedient Jews from even getting close to violating the Law. Takkanah derives from a root word mean “fix” or “remedy”; these are revisions of Torah ordinances that no longer satisfy the requirements of the times or circumstances (arguably, these revisions can be deduced from and do not violate the Torah). Minhag means “customs”; these have developed for worthy religious reasons, not from reasoned decision-making, and have continued long enough to become binding religious practices. ~ We Episcopalians have plenty of all three types in our own denominational practice. We have general and diocesan canons; we have policies and by-laws; we have “the ways we’ve always done it.” ~ When we try to build “fences” around sacred things, I have a suspicion about what we are doing. Anglican history tells us that Archbishop William Laud started the Episcopal “altar rail” tradition by ordering that fences be placed around altars because he was afraid Puritans would allow their dogs to urinate on them! I think that’s iconic of what the mitzvot d’rabbanam and our own canons, by-laws, and “we’ve always done it that ways” are about – Fear! We are trying to protect that which we originally valued from that which we fear, even though we may not be able to name the source of our fear. And it is to that unnamed fear that Jesus speaks in his follow-up conversation with the disciples. Fear, irrational, unreasoning, often unnamed fear, is powerful and when it takes hold of the human heart a lot of evil can result, “for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” It was, I believe, out of fear that the Pharisees had concentrated so much on the externals of religious practice. So intent were they on the fences, remedies, and customs that had grown up around the Jewish faith that the internals of faith, that which was originally valued, had been forgotten or even avoided. ~ The collect for this Saturday in the third week of Lent includes a petition that God keep watch over the church because it is “grounded in human weakness and cannot maintain itself without [God’s] aid.” No human weakness, I think, is greater or more powerful than irrational, unreasoning, and often unnamed fear. And there is no greater remedy for fear than the the love of God and God’s offer of freedom in Christ.

By the way – Happy St. Patrick’s Day!