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Table Manners

David Evans

August 30, 2015
Mark 7:1-23


Our text this morning finds Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples.   Apparently some of the “uber-religious” scribes from Jerusalem and some local Pharisees are hovering over the table as Jesus eats.  The table manners of Jesus and his friends are being scrutinized.  Listen for the Word of God as it is recorded in the 7th chapter of the gospel of Mark:

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 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 honours 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, “Honour 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, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 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.’

“…they saw that some of the disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed…”

David Evans croppedMy first call out of seminary was to the First Presbyterian Church of Annapolis, Maryland. First Church is the National Naval Memorial of the Presbyterian Church and one of my responsibilities was to minister to the Presbyterian Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy a couple of blocks down the street. It was a turbulent time in our nation’s life as the Vietnam War was winding down and the Watergate scandal was winding up.

However, in the midst of all that seriousness, I had one responsibility that was particularly enjoyable. Periodically throughout the year, Linda and I would be invited to attend a Midshipmen Formal Dinner. Ordinarily Mid’s Mess was in cavernous Bancroft Hall. But First Class, or Senior, Mids were required to participate in a course called “Protocol.”   In that class they learned their Ps and Qs. It was sort of a “Miss Manners” for soon-to-be naval officers.

For several weeks they would practice how to behave in a formal dining situation, the kind of dinners many of them would encounter as young naval officers. They practiced the rituals of such occasions:

  • How to seat lady guests
  • Which fork to use
  • When to begin eating
  • How to make small talk

Perhaps it has never been a big concern of yours, but I have often wondered who taught Jesus’ “protocol” course?  Certainly Joseph and Mary must have attempted to teach their child some manners.  Yet it seems that from the time he was a child in the temple in Jerusalem he was none too gentle even with his own parents.  Throughout the gospels meals seem to bring out the “snarky” side of Jesus.  Here, Jesus  is saying:  “Things are changing in the Kingdom of God.”  And things do change. Social graces change over time.   When I was growing up it was essential for me to say “Sir” and “Ma’am” whenever I addressed an adult. Now that is just “quaint,” out of fashion, often seemingly contrived in our more informal culture.  As I pondered our complicated text for today, I began to wonder:  “When and how do rituals that mean so much to one generation become irrelevant to another generation?”  For instance, when did it become O.K. for a whole table full of people to spend an entire meal looking at I-phones rather than having a conversation with your table partners?  To be truthful as I have spent most of my life reading and rereading the gospels I find it difficult to believe that Jesus was very interested in the finer points of protocol. To be blunt, Jesus’ table manners would make Emily Post’s hair curl. Jesus’ understanding of the finer points of proper behavior would shock the dowager countess on Downton Abbey.    For Jesus seems to be “manner-challenged.”

For instance…in our text today Jesus goes out of his way to insult the long-held traditions of the most religious and scholarly people in all of Judea. When the disciples are criticized for not engaging in the ritual washing before eating their meal, Jesus “goes off” on them for being concerned with “minor” issues of the law rather than those that are at what Jesus understood as the heart of the law.  And like anyone wanting to put more weight behind his argument, he quotes scripture to prove his point. The prophet Isaiah had criticized his own generation with the stinging words: But their heart is far from me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of humans.”   So Jesus proceeds to outline a whole new set of table manners for those who would sign on to the Kingdom of God.  The etiquette of Kingdom people, Jesus says, has to do with the ethics of “humility” rather than position. Not a false humility…but a humility based in the fact that when one is gripped in the love of God there is no need to prove one’s worth in the world.

Recently I read a memoir by Robert McAfee Brown. He tells of the communion service he celebrated as a chaplain during World War II.  He was on a destroyer escort and the service was being conducted by the after gun turret. There was only room for three men to come forward at a time to receive the elements. The first three who came were the commanding officer of the ship, a fireman’s apprentice, and a black steward’s mate.

In the social life on this ship, as on all Navy ships, there was a rigid hierarchy of white officers, white enlisted men, and black enlisted men. But at the Lord’s Table that hierarchy disappeared for a moment. The three men knelt side by side in absolute equality of need. For a moment there was neither slave nor free, black nor white, officer nor enlisted. For a moment they were exactly what God intended them to be…persons who were united in Christ and united in one another. A moment later they went back to the world in which the old barriers remained. But for a moment they were free of the “traditions of humans” and the world caught a glimpse of the grace of God.

In vain do they worship me,
“This people honors me with their lips,

And then when their special night came they were allowed to invite several guests…usually professors and pastors and friends from town. We were expected to grade the Midshipmen on their table manners. I was always impressed at the care the Navy gave to the preparation of its officers…not only to defend our nation in times of war but to do so with grace and charm!

That is always the challenge we in the church face. When we are faithful, we are constantly evaluating whether what we believe and how we live and the way we worship and the doctrines which form the heart of our faith are our own constructs or come from the very heart of God.  Most of the time it is hard to discern. That is why we join together in a community of moral discourse. For we believe that the will is God is best discerned as we test our convictions with people we trust.

Along the way of struggling with this text, Linda reminded me the other day of a quote from Henri Nouwen that at one time in my ministry I had taped to my desk. It read something to the effect that:

“If we forget what is essential in our ministry,
we will tend to concentrate on the merely important.”

But here’s the point. It is easy to criticize the scribes and the Pharisees for not getting what is essential in their conversation with Jesus. But then I realize that I am as guilty of majoring in minors as the scribes and Pharisees. Someone once told me that every time you see the word “Pharisee” in the gospels you can just as easily substitute the word “Presbyterian.”   What the Pharisees lacked was not the desire to be faithful. What they lacked was imagination.   The imagination to see the world as Jesus sees the world.

And so the struggle to be faithful goes on. It takes not only commitment but imagination. So I am now handing the baton off to Bruce as San handed the baton to me four months ago. And I am both thankful for the opportunity to have served you and also glad to join you in that struggle to be faithful and imaginative as I return to my pew right behind Helen and Andrew.   AMEN