After five weeks of lifting up Jesus as the Bread of Life in the Gospel of John, and celebrating how Jesus fed 5,000 with only 5 loaves and 2 fish, we return to the gospel of Mark, in this Year B of the lectionary, only to find ourselves in the midst of – a food fight!
Now, food fights can be fun, don’t get me wrong – who doesn’t like watching John Belushi and Company, in Animal House! But they can also be costly, it seems to me, like La Tomatina in Spain, the annual tomato fight, which started, over nothing more than an injured ego, 70 years ago. And now, thousands of gleeful tomato slingers, use something like 160 tons of tomatoes per fight! That’s a lot of spaghetti dinners down the drain, in my book – but one good thing – they say that afterwards, when they wash all the tomato paste away with fire hoses, the streets are immaculately clean because of the acidity level of tomatoes!
Jesus and his disciples were breaking bread and “eating the loaves,” it says – no tomato Bruschetta, as far as we know – when the Church Police show up, and immediately take offense. ‘Don’t you wash your hands before you eat!?’ ‘What kind of Disciples do you have here?!’ ‘And, by the way, when you’re finished, don’t forget to use a non-abrasive sponge when washing the non-stick pans!’
Being the one who does the dishes at my house, I know, I can get like that sometimes, like some kind of undercover FBI agent, even when others offer to help!
The spies that interrupted dinner-time by the Sea of Galilee, were on the lookout for ways to trip Jesus up. They traveled halfway across the country, with the sole purpose of digging up some dirt they can use against this Messiah wannabe. So, if you’re like me, you may cringe a little, when his disciples play right into their hands, eating openly with “defiled hands” – so to speak. This is going to be too easy, say the church police, grinning to one another!
But Jesus remembers how Isaiah prophesied about his own people:
'This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
…abandoning the commandment of God, and holding to human tradition."
And to the whole crowd, Jesus says, ‘It’s not what goes in a person that can defile, but the things that come out, are what defile.’ “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” And, in case we miss the point, Mark adds his own editorial comment: “Thus Jesus declared all foods clean.” Is Mark asking us to believe that Jesus endorses a winner in this food fight?! But if that’s all it’s about, winners and losers, where’s the gospel message in that? What’s so bad about washing your hands before dinner, anyway? Is there not something more we can learn from this food fight – some kind of, third way?
Food, of course, can indeed be a health hazard in the 21st century. Tainted eggs caused sickness, even death, earlier this year. Hamburger and bagged lettuce are other notable examples. Washing our foods, and the surfaces they touch, in preparation for meals, can be all important. And so, what goes inside us, from the outside, may indeed be harmful.
Those in recovery have some compelling stories to tell about the alcohol and drugs that they have ingested, which over time so controlled their lives, they lost spouses and families, cars and houses, friendships and sometimes all self-respect, before finding help to turn away from substances that they not only abused, but that abused them, their bodies nearly broken – all for that thing outside of them that they took in, which utterly defiled their lives.
Others of us have used food or mood-altering substances to self-medicate for what are essentially, spiritual issues – emptiness or loss, boredom or anxiety – which by their very nature cause in us, guilt or shame, and feelings of, self-defilement.
“These things do not move cleanly through our psyche’s and intestines,” and out into the sewer, as Jesus says. “Rather they flatten us, desensitize and anesthetize us,” says Pastor Langknecht, “they skew our perspective and sense of proportion and thereby deform the very “hearts” from which evil intentions come.” (Henry Langknecht, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=386)
This doesn’t negate the point Jesus is making, I don’t think, that evil intentions can come from within. The list about evil intentions is long, and none of us, I dare say, is immune. But we might then ask the further question Jesus does: Do we cross the line from acting like your average human caught in hypocrisy, into that of idolatry? Do we from time to time fall into slothful tomato fights, or are our food fights, fights to the death in our relationships with others, staking out boundary lines, claiming our righteousness over-against those we consider ungodly, self-satisfied in our supposed absolute truth? Or simply put: has “washing the fruit we buy, become more important than giving fruit to the hungry?” (Langknecht)
“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” said James. “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”
In a way, it’s all about our relationships. Do we model our relationships after the rivalries and envies and competitions, all around us in our culture? Or do we model our relationships after the one, who is One with our motherly Father, one with the perfect law of Liberation? Do we join in the tomato fight, or, follow the one, who sat down to feed 5,000?
The culture of this world is like gravity itself. It exists and is self-perpetuating in its relationship between other bodies. It’s like a forcefield that we fall into it, and it is just there.
Until God enters this world, we have no measurement for the food fights and other conflicts and rivalries we have created. Without God’s Messiah, we become our own Church Police, making our own laws, that idolize our own self-righteousness. We are born into this forcefield, called sin. Or, as our Baptismal liturgy says: “We are born children of a fallen humanity.” We don’t do it just because Adam and Eve did. We sin because we fall into the forcefield of humanity’s tangled relationships, and endless food fights, and have not yet ingested the new Messiah, the bread of life. For when we begin to internalize the one who is One with the motherly Father, the perfect Law of Liberation, we learn a third way; we cross over into the land of milk and honey; we are changed and transformed by our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, and become the children of God.
In Christ Jesus, our relationships are built on self-giving love, the “doing” which overcomes all evil, and even can withstand evil intentions in our relationships with one another, and the world.
Let us Not Just Be, washers of the fruit we buy before eating, but be those who faithfully give fruit to those who are hungry, because we have first been cleansed by the love of our motherly Father, the perfect Law of Liberation.